Since Mel Gibson spent $30 million to film “The Passion of the Christ” and took in a huge $600 million at the box office, Hollywood producers and studios have accepted Christ, at least as a subject for movies. Now they’re trying to cash in.
An upcoming push by Hollywood’s studios and independent producers represents an unprecedented effort to reach America’s faith-based audience, something that many believe is long overdue.
“People are tired of spending their money on movies that trample their faith or make fun of their values,” says Stephen Kendrick, associate pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., who co-wrote and produced the inspirational independent film, “Facing the Giants.” “They want to see movies that inspire them.”
Studios are jumping in. Time Warner Inc.’s New Line Cinema the Los Angeles company behind the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy plans to release “The Nativity Story” in the United States next month. The Walt Disney Co. has the sequel “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” slated for next year.
As many as 10 other films with Christian themes, the majority from independent producers, are scheduled to hit the big screen in 2007.
And of course, News Corp.’s 20th Century Fox in September unveiled FoxFaith, a film unit that will target Christian audiences, with major money behind it. The studio plans to acquire at least six movies for theatrical and DVD distribution each year under the brand.
But it remains to be seen if Christian audiences and mainstream moviegoers will buy “spiritainment,” as some have called it.
“The Nativity Story” should provide an early indicator. It will have a major springboard: the Vatican has agreed to host the premiere of the film on Nov. 26, with proceeds going to build a school in Mughar, Israel, the hamlet outside Nazareth where the movie was filmed.
Former Paramount Pictures President David Kirkpatrick, who in 2005 founded L.A.’s Good News Holdings, a privately owned, Christian multimedia entertainment company, takes issue with the notion that the emergence of the Christian film genre is all about money.
“It is also about trying to affect culture in a positive way,” said Kirkpatrick. “It’s about core values.”
Good News Holding owns the film rights to Anne Rice’s “Out of Egypt: Christ the Lord,” which the company plans to roll out for Christmas 2007. The company’s first release, however, is to be a low-budget teen horror film called “DudleyTown” and slated for next Halloween.
“Not every film is going to be a sandals and toga film,” said Kirkpatrick.
Good News executives expect “DudleyTown” will receive an R rating, generally indicative of plenty of gore. The film tells the tale of a group of teens who venture into the Connecticut forest where a cursed colonial community once stood and find palpable evil.
The only one who comes out alive in “DudleyTown” is the Christian, but does that make it a Christian film?
“The point of the story isn’t to do something salacious or over-sexualized,” said Kirkpatrick. “It’s about a young man coming to have a stronger relationship with Christ.”
Reaching youth means speaking their language, Kirkpatrick maintains.
“If we’re going to make a difference, we can’t ignore the culture that we live in,” he said. “It’s a risky project, but an exciting one.”
One thing “DudleyTown” will share with other Christian-inspired films is a marketing campaign that aims to take advantage of grassroots church support.
The plan is to produce three “DudleyTown” movies that will each correspond to a book being simultaneously written and published by Thomas Nelson a large Christian publisher a few months prior to each release. Additionally, Kirkpatrick has met with 40 top youth ministers to discuss the “DudleyTown” series and its relevance.
Matthew Crouch and his wife, Laurie, the founders of Gener8xion Entertainment, drummed up support in similar fashion before the release of “One Night with the King” last month.
The film, based on the biblical story of Esther, cost $20 million to make and has grossed roughly $12 million so far after opening at the No. 9 position in its opening weekend. The support of Christian organizations and ministers had plenty to do with that, according to the film’s producer, the son of well-known televangelist Paul Crouch.
“It was wonderful to see Variety’s glowing review, but that pales in comparison to the voice of a senior pastor playing our trailer and telling his congregation to go,” said Matthew Crouch. He said he was able to look at box office grosses in various cities on the opening weekend and immediately pinpoint which pastors he had to thank.
One of Crouch’s supporters is Mark Tennant who heads the Arrow Project, a Christian agency headquartered in Texas that focuses on foster care for children who have suffered abuse or neglect. The Arrow Project set up special screenings in Texas and 10 other states.
“The story of Esther is the perfect book of the Bible for giving hope to orphans and at-risk youth,” said Tennant. “There’s a group of 50 to 100 pastors who I consider friends and whose cell phone numbers I have who can make a difference,” says Crouch.
“They get the word out,” says Crouch. “It’s a system Hollywood would never be able to duplicate.”
They may try, however. FoxFaith is also finding ways to mesh movies and bible study. Some 90,000 Christian organizations and 14 million households have opted-in to receive information from FoxFaith, according to Fox Senior Vice President Steve Feldstein. Ministers can go to the FoxFaith Web site and download movie discussion guides and corresponding clips for Christian-themed Fox titles, such as “Because of Winn-Dixie.”
“We found a market that was underserved, and we’re going about providing them with quality product,” said Feldstein.
Fox hopes its label can be enjoyed by all, and not just by those of a particular religion.
“We’re in the business of entertainment, and not in the business of preaching,” said Feldstein.
Helping Fox expand the genre, national retail chains are increasingly embracing faith-based DVD sections. Walmart.com’s religion and spirituality section is highly defined, and the mass merchant sorts titles by such sub-categories as “Biblical,” “Drama,” and “Pope John Paul II.”
A number of other studios have had significant DVD successes with faith-based films.
For example, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is behind many of the popular Christian thriller “Left Behind” titles.
Crouch had some success with “Omega Code” in 1999, but “One Night With the King” is doing even better. His company’s next movie, “Blessed Child,” is based on a novel co-written by Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, about a boy with healing powers.
That plot line returns to the core of the question of what’s a Christian film, and Crouch is convinced a picture need not have an overtly religious slant to qualify.
“We don’t necessarily produce movies about faith,” said Crouch. “We make movies that don’t violate your faith.”
Raising the bar
Though some, like Crouch and Kirkpatrick, hope to see a spiritual shift in Hollywood, others see it as merely a change of tactics: Studios are simply trying harder to capitalize on smaller markets, and are refining techniques they’ve utilized in the past.
‘Look at ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ and the Tyler Perry movies, such as ‘Diary of a Mad Black Woman,'” said Jason Squire, an assistant professor at the USC School of Cinema-TV. “The makers of ‘Greek Wedding’ went to Greek Orthodox Churches to drum up support, and urban-based grassroots marketing accounted for much of the initial support for Perry’s films.”
Jonathan Bock, founder and president of Valley Village-based Grace Hill Media, a media marketing firm focused on the religious sector, believes the depth and breadth of the Christian market will find a place for films like “The Nativity” and “DudleyTown.”
“When you talk about an audience that’s roughly 200 million people, you don’t need all 200 million to go for your movie to be a success,” said Bock.
While Bock believes Hollywood can connect with Christian audiences, he thinks the key is producing not just Christian movies, but great Christian movies.
“The creating and support of great art needs to be the goal on both sides, the studios and Christians,” said Bock. “I mean art that moves people.”