In 2012, Gallup reported that 78 percent of U.S. adults identified as being a Christian. Religion in all its forms is ubiquitous in American life, but only recently has that become apparent at the cineplex. Therefore, when the average American steps up to the box office at their local movie theater, it is a safe assumption that this person believes in the Christian God.
Films with religious themes have been around since the beginning of the medium, in the form of grand epics such as “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.” However, it has taken a very long time for Hollywood to realize that while Christians are a majority, faith plays a much larger role in the lives of a small, yet significant, portion of the population. Even after the gigantic box office cume of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” major studios did not embrace making Christian-targeted films, choosing to make more inclusive, secular fare.
It was not until 2008 when a micro-budget, Christian firefighting drama called “Fireproof” rode a wave of evangelical interest to a gross of over $33 million, despite little to no traditional advertising. The film’s director, Alex Kendrick, then went on to make “Courageous,” which made even more money, largely on the backs of church groups buying tickets in large quantitites.
The most recent example of Christian audiences heading to cinemas in droves comes in the form of “God’s Not Dead,” starring Shane Harper (MTV’s “Awkward”) and featuring “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson as himself. The film has become controversial due to its confrontational rebuke of academia and nontheism. This has only encouraged Christian audiences to see the film, which has already grossed over $25 million since its March 21 release, with no signs of slowing down.
This does not mean that every independent film targeted to Christian audiences is a slam dunk. Recent films such as “Grace Unplugged,” “October Baby” and “The Christmas Candle” were given large theatrical releases yet achieved meager grosses. This suggests that Christian audiences are picky about the films they embrace theatrically; they must strike a particular note, like “God’s Not Dead” appears to have done.
Major studio releases like this year’s “Son of God” and “Noah” both appear to have been successful in this regard, each grossing over $60 million with the latter only being in its second week of release. However, these are both Biblical epics in the traditional sense; their success in the marketplace is nothing new.
The real test for Hollywood trying to break into a genre that has only thrived independently comes in the form of Sony’s “Heaven Is for Real,” based on the 2010 book of the same name. Every major studio will be holding a microscope over this film during Easter weekend, as it will be Hollywood’s first real attempt to attract an audience that feels it has been taken for granted.
Tinseltown appears to be ready to make a big leap of faith on Christianity. Time will only tell if they do the same.
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