Authentic Christian films are proving to be huge moneymakers for Hollywood studios, despite still being dismissed by many in the entertainment business as “not part of mainstream Hollywood fare.”
The breakout success of the 2004 blockbuster The Passion of the Christ, whose astounding U.S. box office sales of over $370 million surprised supporters and detractors alike, woke a sleeping Hollywood to the reality of Christian audiences hungry for genuine spiritual fare.
A long lull followed the golden age of religious cinema, when films like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, King of Kings, and The Robe occupied their own page on the Hollywood menu.
In the last 20 years, however, and an increasingly accelerated rate, Christian film is proving to be an important genre in its own right, and faith-based movies have burgeoned into a “multi-billion-dollar business.”
“You can add faith-based movies to the list of genres that you can count on as box office, as much as you can count on any genre,” said comScore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
Nonetheless, “these movies have to come from an authentic place,” Dergarabedian added.
“You can’t just suddenly have executives in board rooms saying, ‘Faith-based movies are big right now so let’s do one.’ You have to come from an authentic place,” he said. “Those in the faith-based community will know if it’s not the real deal.”
Some of the big-budget films—like The Passion of the Christ, Noah, and Exodus: Gods and Kings—are strictly biblical in nature, while others—like Hacksaw Ridge, Heaven Is for Real, The Shack, The War Room, and Miracles from Heaven—deal with the power of faith in more modern settings.
Not only are more Christian films being made, they are also connecting with audiences and drawing people out to the cinema again. Last weekend, two of the top ten movies at the domestic box office dealt with explicitly Christian themes.
At number three, I Can Only Imagine, starring Dennis Quaid and J. Michael Finley, earned nearly $14 million last weekend, adding to $17.1 million the weekend before, when the film debuted.
Paul, Apostle of Christ ranked number eight, pulling in over $5 million over the weekend. James Faulkner stars as Paul, while Jim Caviezel, who played the part of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, flanks him in the role of Saint Luke.
Box office returns are not yet available for God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, the third noteworthy Christian film for the spring season, which opened on 1,693 screens on Good Friday.
The outstanding performance of certain faith-based films continues to baffle Hollywood executives, who seem terminally out of touch with Christian America.
“Therein lies the rub with faith-based movies,” Dergarabedian said. “They are marginalized because they aren’t on the radar or they are somehow dismissed as being not part of mainstream Hollywood fare.”
Moreover, while Hollywood seems to begrudgingly accept Christian film as an important reality to be dealt with, if not embraced, this doesn’t keep studios from attacking Christianity in its other films, either overtly or subtly.
One recent example of the latter is the recent Disney adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, which expunged the script of all the biblical references that Madeleine L’Engle had included in her original novel, leading Christian film critic Justin Chang to note in the Los Angeles Times that “there is some truth to the notion that Hollywood doesn’t always know how best to serve a significant portion of its audience.”
While many faith-based films do not stand out as runaway chart-busters, all in all they make up an ever more significant portion of the industry, with the faith-based genre reportedly earning nearly $2 billion just since the year 2000.
The success of certain Christian films is due, at least in part, to the free advertising provided by believers, who are quick to recommend to all and sundry movies that inspire rather than offend.
“You don’t necessarily need everyone to see the movie if the influencers within churches all over the country are encouraging their flock to go see it,” said Dergarabedian.
“These faith-based movies depart from what the traditional mainstream Hollywood movies need to do,” he said. “You have to have that grass roots marketing for a faith-based movie to be successful.”