article

01.06.10

Hollywood's Christian Blockbuster

The Blind Side has tackled Hollywood, passing the $200 million mark this week. Nicole LaPorte examines the underground, faith-based force that’s fueling the film’s success.

With the phenomenal success of the film The Blind Side, which this week crossed the $200 million mark at the box office—an astonishing feat for any movie, but especially for a female-driven drama, a genre that generally lands in the $40 million neighborhood—Hollywood is awash in rapturous proclamations.

Sandra Bullock is the new Will Smith (i.e., a star who can single-handedly carry a blockbuster)! Sports-themed movies are no longer toxic (a case made by recent films such as Leatherheads and The Express)!

“We try to explain [to Christians] that it’s just like voting,” Jonathan Bock, founder and president of Grace Hill Media, said. “If you want to see more of these movies, they have to be a hit.”

But what no one seems to be talking about is the force that had a great deal to do with why The Blind Side, which was made on a modest budget of $29 million, is suddenly one of the most profitable films of 2009: Christians.

Long before the film, which is based on Michael Lewis’ bestselling, non-fiction book about a wealthy, Evangelical couple in Memphis who welcome a poor, African-American kid into their home and see him go on to become a high-school football phenomenon, was first making waves—back in November, it did the unthinkable and unseated Twilight: New Moon in its third weekend at the box office—Grace Hill Media, a marketing and PR firm that specializes in faith-based audiences, was aggressively selling The Blind Side to pastors and ministers around the country. (Alcon Entertainment, which financed and produced the film, worked with Warner Bros. on more traditional marketing.)

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The film’s enormous Christian audience, while not the only reason for its success (the movie is considered a “four quadrant” hit that is appealing to male, female, young and old) “definitely has a lot to do with its staying power,” said Jeff Bock, a box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “It acted like one of those faith-based films that didn’t go down at the box office weekend to weekend. Eight weeks later, it’s still strong.”

One of Grace Hill’s most innovative techniques was to provide half a dozen clips from The Blind Side, along with “sermon outlines,” to 22,000 megachurches (most of which are equipped with huge screens, typically used to display lyrics to rock hymns). Pastors were encouraged to, while showing a movie clip to their congregation, apply a “biblical connection” and “life application” contained in the Grace Hill promotional materials.

The notes to one outline, called “Turning the Car Around”—which is based on the scene in which Leigh Anne Tuohy persuades her husband to stop and pick up “Big Mike” Oher from the side of the road on a cold, damp night—suggest this as a “sermon starter”: “Has God ever nudged your heart? Maybe you’ve driven past someone and felt a tug, a sudden surge of compassion. The Spirit may have prompted you to act.”

The accompanying biblical connection references the passage from Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in…”

According to Jonathan Bock, the founder and president of Grace Hill (no relation to Jeff Bock), a typical megachurch seats about 400 people. Thus this marketing effort alone reached nearly 9 million people. Then there were the early screenings for religious groups; the press junkets to which members of the Christian media were invited; and calls to spread the word about The Blind Side on Twitter and through other social-networking means.

“We try to explain that it’s just like voting,” Bock told The Daily Beast. “If you want to see more of these movies, they have to be a hit.”

The secret weapon of faith-based audiences is nothing new in Hollywood. Look at Tyler Perry, whose miniscule-budget films, made specifically for church-going, African-American filmgoers, routinely rack up tens of millions at the box office. And consider that Grace Hill has worked on nearly 300 campaigns over the last decade, for films such as Evan Almighty, My Dog Skip, and The Da Vinci Code. Then, of course, there was The Passion of the Christ, a film that made more money domestically than Transformers, and that spawned copycats, such as The Nativity Story (a far less successful endeavor).

But even though the faith-based audience has always been there, Hollywood has generally grappled with making overtly religious films, for fear of offending the mostly secular community that makes up, well, Hollywood.

“The post- Passion of the Christ [atmosphere] was that studios wanted that audience, but they didn’t necessarily want to make that movie,” said Grace Hill’s Bock.

Enter The Blind Side, a film that savvily manages to have it both ways: It simultaneously is and isn’t a Christian movie. And therein may lie the latest, secret success formula in a movie business that never fails to keep coming up with them. It’s not as sexy a strategy as, say, casting Sandra Bullock in every single, upcoming picture (which, at this point, seems to be the biggest take-away from The Blind Side), but it seems far more fail-proof.

The film does not shy away from religion. The Tuohys are presented as religious-minded folk who send their kids to a private Christian school, whose visibly displayed motto is taken from Matthew 19:26 and (in the film’s slightly tweaked version) reads: “With men this is possible, but with God all things are possible.”

Save for a fleeting jab at George W. Bush, Christians have been delighted by the positive image The Blind Side presents. Leigh Anne may dress (and decorate) tackily, but she is unquestionably a strong-minded and moral do-gooder. She is not dumb and does not carry a rifle (though she brags that she’s a member of the NRA).

But at the same time, the film does not proselytize religion, either, and omits details about the Tuohys’ faith that Lewis had included in the book—such as that they are born-again, and helped create the Grace Evangelical Church in Memphis. The film also does not present Oher’s journey from pauper to prince, as it is viewed by those around him, in distinctly Christian terms.

For example, in the book, a teacher who supervised Oher’s academics tells Lewis: “Michael got saved when he was at Briarcrest. What better way to spread the word of Jesus than for Michael Oher to stand up and say it? What kid in the Memphis city schools wouldn’t listen?”

The teacher goes on to compare Oher to Moses. (This, too, did not make it into the script.)

Indeed, almost everything in the book is viewed by its subjects through the prism of religion, a tack that writer-director John Lee Hancock completely rejects. A technical foul on the sports field is a “spiritual transgression.” A pre-game pep talk in the locker room is an excuse for prayer. Leigh Anne explains the death of her racist father thusly: “I think God took Daddy because He knew he couldn’t handle it.” (“It” being Big Mike.) And, of course, it’s noted that everyone goes to church on Sunday and that Big Mike is always the first one dressed and ready to go.

Interestingly, it’s the film’s more subtle approach to religion that seems to be winning points in Christian circles.

“It’s downplayed in the movie,” said Mark Moring, senior associate editor of the magazine Christianity Today. “It’s clear they are people of faith and Christian, but they don’t hammer you with it.”

For those who weren’t indoctrinated early on by Grace Hill, Moring said, the reactions he’s hearing are along the lines of: “Oh, there’s a Christian message, too! Cool!”

“The thing people don’t get about Christians is that they don’t want a Christian movie, they want good movies,” said Jonathan Bock. “You don’t need everyone to have an altar call. They want to see the faith that they so deeply believe in portrayed in action on screen. The Blind Side is a beautiful example of that. Christians are called to help the poor, help those in need. It’s a commandment, it’s not even encouraged—you have to do this. And that’s what the Tuohys did, they lived it.”

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.