Hollywood has faith in Christian films

04/12/2014 11:29 PM

08/08/2014 10:23 AM

There’s a new power player at the box office, one that doesn’t need an agent: God.

A string of successful films released recently have attracted faith-based audiences in droves. And it’s proving that these films – or rather, the people who see them – are a major force to be reckoned with.

It started in late February when 20th Century Fox released “Son of God,” a sort of patched-together film that mixed footage from the popular History Channel miniseries “The Bible” with new footage. It starred Diogo Morgado as Jesus, the “first Latin Jesus in an English film,” according to Chris Aronson, Fox domestic distribution chief.

“Son of God” appealed to a Latino demographic as well as a Christian one. The film became a surprise hit, and has so far made more than $58 million at the box office domestically, according to Box Office Mojo.

That far exceeded expectations. It cost less than $10 million to transfer it to the big screen, according to the Wrap.

And it didn’t matter that the film garnered dismal reviews (its score on Rotten Tomatoes, which takes a consensus of critics’ ratings, is a measly 22 percent out of 100). Filmgoers apparently got what they needed from the movie.

But it was only a sign of things to come.

Defying critics

On March 21, the same weekend that saw “Divergent” expectedly open at No. 1 with about $55 million and “Muppets Most Wanted” (disappointingly) open with about $17 million, the independent release (from little-known distributor Freestyle Releasing) “God’s Not Dead,” which follows the plight of a Christian college student who must prove that God exists or be failed by his atheist professor, came out of nowhere to open at No. 5 with about $9 million.

That’s no small feat, especially considering that “Divergent” opened on 3,936 screens while “God’s Not Dead” opened on only 780. It also had no big-name stars (unless 1990s “Hercules” star Kevin Sorbo counts), and it was obviously Christian themed, the likes of which don’t normally do well at the box office (similar contemporary films such as “Fireproof” usually top out around $6 million or so).

Like “Son of God,” “God’s Not Dead” didn’t fare well with critics (its Rotten Tomatoes score is a paltry 18 percent), but the film defied critics.

It also defied usual box office behavior.

A major release usually starts out big on opening weekend then falls off. But “God’s Not Dead” is the rare film to actually see growth after its opening.

The film climbed to the No. 4 spot on last weekend’s box office returns, and has now made about $35 million domestically (it had a production budget of $2 million, according to Box Office Mojo). It also added 580 theaters last week to be showing in a total of 1,758, with no signs of slowing down.

To most industry observers, this is a surprise. Others saw it coming.

Locally, Warren Theatres booked “God’s Not Dead” to open in two of its largest auditoriums – prime real estate that’s usually reserved for blockbusters.

“We knew of the demand,” said Dan Gray, vice president of operations at Warren Theatres. “We had local churches contacting us, wanting to get (the film) out to their congregations.”

He says the surge in Christian films is definitely a hot trend right now, even though they’ve been slowly building a following over the past few years. The difference now, he says, is that major Hollywood distributors are jumping on board.

“They’re saying, ‘This is a market that’s underserved, what can we do to be a part of it?’ ” Gray said. “Now we’re seeing it.”

Bible stories, grand and small

“Noah” is not exactly in the same vein as other “Christian” releases, but it did happen to be released just as the trend seems to be hitting its stride.

Gray says some of the same people that would see “Son of God” are also seeing “Noah,” but that “Noah” appeals “to a larger group, just being a large, epic Biblical picture.”

Although “Noah” sparked controversy with allegations that it strays too far from the Biblical story (or that it doesn’t even mention the word “God”), it still drew vast numbers. It made more than $55 million in its opening weekend, and has so far made more than $76 million domestically.

So this could point to other grand Biblical films in the future, Gray says.

“Fox and some of the other big ones in Hollywood have all signed on saying they want to redo the big Biblical stories that came out in the ’50s and ’60s, ‘Ben-Hur,’ ‘The Ten Commandments.’ Because of that, I think smaller film companies are going to follow suit, picking up the smaller story lines.”

“Heaven Is for Real,” which opens Wednesday, might be just such a film. Although released by a major distributor – TriStar Pictures, a division of Sony – it is a much more intimate story.

It stars Greg Kinnear (“As Good As It Gets”) and Kelly Reilly as real-life couple Todd and Sonja Burpo, whose son – after a near-death experience – claims to have gone to heaven and back. The film is based on Todd Burpo’s best-selling book.

The film’s writer/director, Randall Wallace, says he was drawn to the story based on his own beliefs.

“I was drawn by the power of the question of ‘Is heaven real and in what way is it real?’ ” Wallace said by phone last week. “I wanted to confront what it was about that question that could speak to everyone.”

It will no doubt speak to the same people seeing “Son of God” and “God’s Not Dead.” But Wallace insists this film isn’t cashing in on the current “faith craze.”

“I was unaware of any trends in movies when we started making” this film, Wallace said. “It may do us good in terms of momentum,” but he says his intent was to tell a good story.

It won’t be the last of its kind. Two highly anticipated, albeit much bigger-budget, major studio releases are on their way.

In December, 20th Century Fox is releasing Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” an account of Moses’ hand in leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt, starring Christian Bale as Moses.

And in April 2015 will come “Mary,” the long-awaited prequel to “The Passion of the Christ,” the most successful Christian film of all time, grossing more than $370 million after its release in 2004.

“Mary” could draw the same numbers. Theater owners will no doubt be prepared.

Regardless, Gray hopes Hollywood doesn’t run a good thing into the ground.

“Hollywood is known for jumping on the bandwagon right away,” he said. “If they just take their time, if Christian-based films are done right, there’s going to be a very good market for them.”

Perhaps because these films comfort people, and cause people to reflect. Wallace thinks so, and hopes “Heaven Is for Real” will.

“I hope it causes people of whatever faith, even people who would think of themselves as having no faith at all, to feel the doors of their possibilities wide open.”

About Movie Maniac

The Eagle's Rod Pocowatchit offers his musings on the screen scene.

Reach Rod at rpocowatchit@wichitaeagle.com.

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