For the first time in a decade, the adult life of Jesus played on movie screens across the country. To the shock of few people, Son of God was a hit, scoring more than $26 million on opening weekend.
It has been too long since the story of the Gospels played at the box office. With an underserved audience eager to watch movies that reflect their values, why would Hollywood not be eager to embrace a Christian audience?
The lackluster crowd response for Matthew McConaughey praising God during his Oscar acceptance speech Sunday is a reminder how uncomfortable the industry is with matters of faith. However, Hollywood likes to make money. Christian audiences belong to a significant segment of the American population. Why not make more movies for them?
Ray Subers at BoxOfficeMojo.com recently pointed to this interesting statistic:
According to the Pew Research Group, around 37 percent of Americans attend some kind of weekly religious service. Other polling suggests that around three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christian. By that math, over 80 million Americans attend some kind of Christian service each week. If a meager five percent of that group turns out for Son of God this weekend, that would translate to an opening weekend of more than $30 million.
I had the pleasure of attending an opening night screening Son of God in downtown Denver. The audience was a procession of the demographics Hollywood ignores: women, older adults, minorities, and, of course, Christians. I overheard members of the audience express they want more faith-based movies. Others were excited about the Noah trailer.
The CinemaScore grade A- for Son of God showcases how pleased the audience was with the film. Christians were motivated to make it a hit because they know their faith is rarely represented on the big screen.
My devout Catholic father said he would see it in a theater as a way to financially support it “on principle” despite watching The Bible mini-series on television. The film features footage from that miniseries plus additional scenes not shown on television.
The success of Son of God could be a taste of things to come if the entertainment industry would make and market more movies to segmented audiences. The industry seems to be caught off guard by (not-so) “surprise” hits for movies that are not within their demographic. However, Hollywood and Christians have a more complicated relationship beyond the culture wars.
Not all faith based films do well. Two years after The Passion of The Christ, The Nativity Story underperformed and was considered by some to be a disappointment. The industry went back to ignore an audience that didn’t show up.
Later, mico-budgeted films of faith like October Baby and Fireproof proved successful, but several faith-based movies released last year couldn’t duplicate their results. Grace Unplugged barely had an audience while I’m In Love with a Church Girl went unnoticed. T.D. Jakes’ Black Nativity disappointed in wide release. Even Rick Santorum couldn’t connect his influential evangelical contacts to mobilize moviegoers to see Christmas Candle an adaptation of a Max Lucado book.
This is a cyclical issue: Not all Christian movies are hits so why would an industry be motivated to make faith-based films?
Brand awareness makes all the difference, but so does an eager and engaged audience. Son of God was a hit because it focused on the familiar story from the Bible. Christians know the source material and are more likely to support a movie with established real people instead of unknown fictional characters. Also, the original miniseries which Son of God was based upon sent alerts to users of the popular YouVersion Bible App to gain market awareness. It was a double whammy for the built in, yet underserved audience. Innovative ways to focus on the your potential audience pays off.
Some quality, smaller movies would do well with Christian audiences, but the industry doesn’t bother to market to them. Both Linsanity and This Is Martin Bonner played all over the 2013 film festival circuit with potential to be sold to faith-based crowds. Both failed to find their audience.
The best faith-based movie from the last 10 years was Of Gods & Men but few Christians have heard of it. Winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival (the same film festival the 1986 movie The Mission screened), it is the true story of missionary monks steadfast in their faith and martyred by Islamic fundamentalists.
The studio missed an opportunity to heavily promote the movie to Catholics and evangelicals, but I cannot blame them. Audiences are fickle yet easily amused (Christians even more so) and this slow paced, subtitled movie not directly based on The Bible was risky for even a semi-wide release.
Christians who want Hollywood to make movies for them should watch all faith-based films and make them hits. Your dollar has an impact and social media chatter enhances buzz. Seek out all movies that reflect your values. Hollywood has a golden opportunity to make a significant amount of money with other audiences they constantly neglect especially Christians.
It took around seven “surprise” Tyler Perry hits before this industry started making more movies for African Americans. Healthy profit margins and less box office bombs make Hollywood happy.
Who knows? Perhaps the next time an actor like McConaughey praises God at the Oscars, maybe the industry will cheer a little louder.