When last weekend’s box office numbers were revealed one superstar came out on top. It wasn’t Denzel Washington, Robert Downey, Jr. or any of the other usual names from Hollywood’s A-list. In fact, this A-lister did not even appear in any film credits at all, but may have just become Hollywood’s hottest commodity. The new power player: God, or more specifically God and his many Christian followers. For the first time, two Christian themed films appeared in two of the top box office slots.
Russell Crowe’s Noah, inspired by the Bible story, was number one raking in a hefty $44 million. Its box office dominance inspired a flood (no pun intended) of pun-ny headlines, among them “Noah Floats, Sabotage Drowns” from Forbes. But what’s more shocking to Hollywood insiders is the appearance of God’s Not Dead on the box office power list. The fifth most popular film in America for the second week in a row tells the story of a Christian college student locked in a battle of wills against a professor who is an atheist. Despite a tiny budget and its lack of marquee stars (TV actors Kevin Sorbo and Dean Cain appear) the film has pulled in more than $20 million at the box office so far.
But the two movies are not the only ones establishing Christian themed films, and the people who see them, as a major Hollywood force to be reckoned with. Last month, Son of God surpassed box office expectations. Heaven is for Real, a film based on the bestselling book, will soon be released, and expectations are high.
“It feels like we’re in a special moment that has never happened before in Hollywood where you have this many faith-based movies being released by not just independent filmmakers but now the big studios,” said Paul Lauer, founder and CEO of Motive Entertainment, the leading film marketing firm for reaching Christian audiences. “This Holy Week there will be four major feature films in theaters at the same time and that’s unprecedented.”
Lauer launched his firm a little over a decade ago with a plan to focus on targeting underserved religious audiences, unchartered territory at the time. Months after opening he was introduced to Mel Gibson who told him about a faith-inspired film he wanted to release. That film became the mega-hit Passion of the Christ. Motive Entertainment led the groundbreaking grassroots marketing campaign targeting Christians through churches and other non-traditional marketing venues that helped make Passion of the Christ, an independent film, one of the most successful films of all time.
But even after its success, films about faith did not become ubiquitous the way many genres do after one film succeeds. According to Scott A. Shuford, founder of FrontGate Media, a firm specializing in reaching Christian audiences online, Hollywood was slow to recognize the power and scope of Christian consumers. “I think at first Hollywood business people got confused between a religion and a market.” Shuford, whose firm was one of those involved in the marketing of Noah, went on to explain that while Hollywood has been serving African Americans and Latinos as distinct markets with distinct interests, they struggled to see Christians the same way and as a result didn’t invest resources in that community. As such, “The Passion of the Christ was initially treated as a fluke.”
But that is finally changing due to the sheer box office numbers of Christian themed films. “We’re seeing some of the best film product right now being targeted to this audience,” he said.
“It’s almost like we’re having a coming out of the closet for people of faith in the community.”
Calling 2014 a “banner year” for faith-based films, Paul Lauer predicted, “As each of these films achieves a measure of success I think more and more filmmakers and studios and distributors and financiers and actors and directors and everybody will say ‘this could be a rewarding area to get into’.” But Lauer, whose firm also led grassroots campaigns for the films Chronicles of Narnia and Son of God, speculated that the success of this year’s faith-based films could have implications in Hollywood beyond the box office. “I think the other thing that will happen [is] there are people of faith all throughout Hollywood who already work in studios as directors and producers and writers and many of them are excited about working on movies like this now that it’s OK to do so,” he said. “It’s almost like we’re having a coming out of the closet for people of faith in the community. And as that happens we’ll get [an] even more organic growth of faith-based and inspirational movies coming from people that are already embedded in the system, like Mark and Roma.”
He was referring to reality TV mogul Mark Burnett, the super producer of Survivor, among other shows, and his wife Touched by an Angel actress Roma Downey. They produced last year’s hit television mini series on The Bible.
But whether Christian stories gaining ground in Hollywood is a good thing for Christians, may ultimately depend on who is telling the stories. The film Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky, has sparked a great deal of controversy from allegations that say it strays too far from Biblical text, to criticisms it omits the word God from the story altogether. (The word “creator” is used.) One Christian unhappy with the film has posted his own version online. Penny Nance, President of the Christian conservative women’s group, Concerned Women for America said in an email “Beginning with “The Passion of the Christ”, Hollywood recognized that there is a Christian market that can be extremely profitable, and we’re happy about that. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm for our money doesn’t always match their enthusiasm for our message. However, family friendly content that creates an opportunity for conversation is always a positive thing.”
For his part, Noah star Russell Crowe dismissed criticism of the film as overreaction and more specifically “absolute stupidity.”
Asked if the success of Noah and God’s Not Dead this week officially answers the question of whether there is a strong market for Christian themed Hollywood fare, Scott Shuford had this to say. “There isn’t any question whether there is a market. The question [to Hollywood] is do you want to be a part of it?