Box-Office Prophets: The Rise of the Faith-Based Film Industry

Call them what you will. “Christian,” or “faith-based” or “inspirational/spiritual/ministry” films are good business in 2016.

Major studios and independent production companies alike (amongst them Provident Films, Mission Pictures, Produced by Faith, Rebel Pilgrim Productions, Cloud Ten Pictures, Pure Flix and Cam Fam Studios) are making and distributing films with a spiritual message as they aim for the Christian audience. High-profile actors such as Nikki Reed, Jennifer Garner and Nicolas Cage are starring in new faith-based films for theatrical release. Variety has to date hosted two editions of PURPOSE: The Family Entertainment and Faith-Based Summit, a day-long event of panels and talks with companies “succeeding in the family and faith-based entertainment space.” It’s time to acknowledge faith-based production as a profitable direction for both studio and independent filmmakers in the United States.

Faith-Based Films Catch Fire

Tom Allen, partner at Allied Faith & Family (a branch of entertainment PR agency Allied), recalls well the moment when Christian blockbusters broke into the mainstream film industry: “In 1999, a film called The Omega Code was released by an independent Christian distributor [Providence Entertainment] and cracked the box office top 10 in its opening weekend.”

The Omega Code has an eight percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes—Variety described it as “laughably simplistic and confoundingly muddled”—but, according to Allen, the film found an audience, which got the mainstream industry thinking. “Five years later, Mel Gibson capitalized on the market’s growing appetite for a solid religious film by putting all his resources and industry power behind The Passion of the Christ, which became a worldwide blockbuster.”

Kate Brosworth stars in Michael Polish's 90 Minutes in Heaven (2015) as a woman whose husband (Hayden Christensen) survives a car accident after being declared dead.

Kate Bosworth stars in Michael Polish’s 90 Minutes in Heaven (2015). Photograph by Quantrell Colbert

Ever since then, producers and studios have been trying to replicate that success, with mixed results. Allen points to other breakout examples that followed The Passion, like the films Fireproof and Courageous, both of which were made for a few million dollars or less and made $30-40 million in theaters alone. Many faith-based dramas and comedies have a limited number of locations, are mostly dialogue-driven, and have few FX needs—so costs can be kept low during production while still satisfying the target audience.

Actor Kevin Sorbo (better known as Hercules from the 1990s TV series of the same name) starred in the extremely successful 2014 drama God’s Not Dead. Directed by Harold Cronk, God’s Not Dead made $8.6 million during its first weekend in theaters, opposite X-Men: Days of Future Past, and by June 2014 had made $64 million. Its budget was only $2 million. A sequel, God’s Not Dead 2, opens in theaters April 1.

In the film, Sorbo plays an atheist college philosophy professor who forces his students to write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and turn it in. One student refuses to complete the assignment and openly disputes his professor in a series of debates.

Sorbo is proud that God’s Not Dead is “far and away the most successful independent faith-based movie ever made.” The actor has been cast in the next two sequels of the Left Behind feature series (a reboot of an early-2000s three-film series starring Kirk Cameron), and his upcoming slate of faith-based films includes Hope Bridge, The Secret Handshake and Joseph and Mary, released this Easter. (“I play Joseph, the stepdad to this guy named Jesus,” he jokes.) Sorbo also has a role in the faith-based thriller Caged No More, directed by Lisa Arnold (one of the stars of God’s Not Dead), out January 2016.

Jon Erwin, co-director of the religious sports drama Woodlawn, which stars Sean Astin, describes the faith-based film movement as “a mini-revolution. There are a couple dozen of us who are pushing it forward. I hope we can establish it through another generation of artists. I like being a part of the early pioneers in this space.

“Sean Astin said to me, ‘I see you as frontiersmen. The trouble is, most frontiersmen die on the frontier.’ But it’s a lot of fun to blaze a trail and contribute to what this industry becomes.”

Sorbo believes that the appeal of faith-based films is that you can sit down and watch them with your kids. “There’s so much crap on TV,” he laments. “So much violence, hate and one-sided politics. I bet that DVD sales for shows from the ’60s and ’70s are on the rise with families, because they’d rather have their kids watch films that had some wholesome humor. People are starving for projects like God’s Not Dead.”

Those people, he says, make up Middle America. “Hollywood and New York call all the states in between flyover states. Those flyover states have millions of people that have morals and values that still mean something… I think [producers in L.A. and New York] are starting to realize that they need to pay attention to the audience out there.”

Divide and Proselytize: The Church’s Role in Faith-Based Cinema

David A.R. White is the founder of Pure Flix, a video-on-demand distributor modeled after Netflix that targets a Christian audience. Originally an actor, White founded Pure Flix to fill a void he noticed in the industry: Films with Christian values were difficult to find in one place. What he discovered was a vast and hungry audience eager for faith-based films packaged under the Pure Flix banner. The site now hosts more than 2,500 titles, and monthly subscriptions cost $7.99.

“One hundred and fifty million people go to church once a month,” White says. “Fifty million go to church on a consistent basis every week, mostly evangelicals. We’re looking for movies that the church can get behind and support, because that’s our base audience.”

White emphasizes the role of pastors as leading proponents of a film. “When the pastor gets up there, he can drive people to the theater as an outreach tool—people who might not go to church on a regular basis, but may go to a theater every weekend. It’s a way for him to reach out beyond the church walls.”

The challenge for spiritually minded moviemakers is appealing to enough church gatekeepers. “The problem is that there have been so many faith-based films hitting the market on a consistent basis that the pastors are wise to their role in publicity now. They know that you’re using them. A pastor’s not going to get up on Sunday morning and say, ‘Hey, go see Creed because Rocky prays in it.’ That pastor takes on a huge responsibility to his congregation when he says, ‘Go to this’ or not. So a film has to serve their people. If you win enough gatekeepers over, you can find a massive audience.”

Many gatekeepers start at the beginning, funding faith-based films as investors. For instance, City on a Hill Productions was founded by Pastor Kyle Idleman of Southern Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. City on a Hill has funded several films in the $2-$3 million dollar range, such as The Song and Woodlawn.

The Reach of Preaching: Building Buzz

Allied Faith & Family handles marketing and sometimes acts as producer for a number of “ministry” films, which are promoted to a spiritual audience via churches and church groups, instead of mainstream film blogs and traditional press. “These films exist to reinforce Christian faith,” Allen explains, “to feed those who already believe. If you’re not of that belief system, there’s often little to praise because the artistry is usually lacking.”

Because of its ongoing marketing relationships with so many pastors and their congregations, Pure Flix is itself a gatekeeper. The distributor doesn’t rely on traditional forms of film promotion at all. No press days, blogs, reviews or film festivals really make a difference, compared to the endorsement of pastors. As Adam Hastings, production and marketing manner at Pure Flix, says, “The reception at festivals isn’t typically positive for independent faith-based films.” (That said, faith film festivals have been popping up in the past 10 years: There’s the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival, 168 Film Project, and The Redemptive Film Festival in the United States.)

In Risen, Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman military tribune who investigates Jesus' disappearance after the crucifixion

In this spring’s Risen, Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman military tribune who investigates Jesus’ disappearance after the crucifixion. Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

“We hold screenings for different pastors in different areas,” says White. “We’ll pick a megachurch [a church with a weekly attendance average of 2,000 or more] somewhere. Now we have a base of churches that have been involved in our releases for the past 10 years. They want to support Christian films in theaters, so what that pastor will do is organize a screening at a local theater. All the church leaders come to the screenings, go back on their pulpits and support that movie.”

Sorbo describes his controversial TV interviews to promote God’s Not Dead as a “grassroots attempt to get a movie out there that people love.” In one Access Hollywood interview, he seemed to suggest that Christians are persecuted in the United States: “Apparently, the majority doesn’t have a voice in this country anymore.”

Other grassroots marketing for God’s Not Dead included a clip at the end of the movie featuring Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson asking everyone in the audience to text all of their friends the message “God’s Not Dead” (The reality series, whose personalities are publicly Christian, features into the movie’s plot). The text message went viral.

There’s also a foreign audience, both English-speaking and non-English-speaking, for faith-based films, in any nation with an Evangelical Christian presence and close-knit congregations. In the Philippines, God’s Not Dead earned almost $2 million in its November 2014 theatrical release—almost its entire production budget. The film also performed well in the U.K and Canada.

Faith-based and Christian films find eager audiences in the African nations of South Africa and Nigeria. The Nigerian film industry, nicknamed “Nollywood,” itself produces mostly faith-based films with family values, of which roughly 20 percent have overt Christian themes, according to the newspaper Christianity Today. As in the United States, faith-based films are often shown to Nigerian congregations and in churches as part of general community worship.

Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson lends his reality TV fame to the big screen in God’s Not Dead. Courtesy of Pure Flix Entertainment

Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson lends his reality TV fame to the big screen in God’s Not Dead. Courtesy of Pure Flix Entertainment

Classifying the “Faith-Based” Genre

Is ‘faith-based film’ a genre?” asks director Erwin. “I think just about any genre can be explored through a faith-based lens. The set of parameters defining a faith-based film is content that reaffirms and explores a certain value system, ultimately expounding Christianity in the Bible. Some films do that in a very overt way, like Woodlawn, and some in a more subtle way, like Soul Surfer or The Blind Side.”

The website Christian Film Database lists films with a wide range of overt religious messages to general family values. Some of these films have explosions, Erwin points out, and still keep core Christian values. He began his career in faith-based films by shooting action sequences for the film Courageous. “It’s my favorite thing to blow things up and do chase sequences on film,” he says.

Indeed, Allen points out that family-friendliness is not always a given with Christian films. “The Passion is definitely not a family-friendly film,” he says. “Look at The Rite, with Anthony Hopkins, or The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Those are faith-based horror films that count as such because they’re assiduously researched and based in fact. More than anything, the ‘faith-based’ designation hinges on the worldview of the film: Does it contain Judeo-Christian themes and reflect a biblical worldview, or is it hostile toward that perspective?”

Sorbo just sold a faith-based action TV series to Sony and will be shooting it in March 2016. “It’s not Touched by an Angel,” he laughs. “It’s more like Punched by an Angel.”

Pure Flix’s White, though, feels that explicitly branding your film as faith-based is effective marketing. “When it comes to selling a film, if you’re aiming at a church audience, you want to label your film that way.”

Dealing with Dissent: Facing Mainstream Backlash

Sorbo feels he dealt with some hostility from mainstream Hollywood after interviews on Fox News defending God’s Not Dead. This consisted of negative press in entertainment and mainstream (especially left-wing) media outlets, as well as viral outrage on social media. “There was a backlash. People go, ‘Oh well, he’s one of those.’ It’s ridiculous to me.”

Erwin pinpoints the backlash as coming directly from liberal Los Angeles: “I think that in Hollywood there has been a certain disdain for Middle American values and our way of life. One of the reasons I choose not to live in Los Angeles is that I have got to keep my finger on the pulse of the audience I serve, and the audience I serve is in Middle America.

“Hollywood stopped making fun of comic book nerds because they learned the value of that audience. They should understand that a conservative Southern Baptist Republican has just as much money to go see movies, so why not serve that audience with as much passion and focus as they serve the comic book audiences?”

Writer-director Maggie Kiley had no idea how quickly people would write off her 2015 independent film, Dial a Prayer, as a faith-based film. The film, she says, is simply about finding the good in one’s self. “I suppose including the word ‘prayer’ in the title, right off the bat, either sent people running to or running away from the movie, but I liked believing that this was a story that would find audiences all around.”

Being marketed as a faith film limited the way Dial a Prayer was received in the indie film world. “It was hard to get attention in the more indie-minded publications,” says Kiley. “A couple of the early platforms we came out on didn’t promote the film in the way I’ve experienced, working with other titles with similar cast.” Kiley sold the film to Vertical even before it had a film festival premiere, and announced the sale at Sundance. It’s now on Netflix.

The religious and nonreligious crowds aren’t always at odds, Allen points out. “Faith-based films can and always have appealed to non-Christian audiences. Look at a movie like The Sound of Music. It’s enormously popular in the general market to this day and is most definitely a ‘faith-based film,’ with its singing nuns and family restoration plot, though it wasn’t positioned as such when it came out.”

Of course, box-office revenue makes it easy for some to dismiss mainstream Hollywood’s unease as irrelevant noise. “Left Behind has earned around $50 million so far,” Vic Armstrong, director of the 2014 film starring Nicholas Cage, chuckles, “and money does talk.”

Actor David A. R. White stars in this April’s God’s Not Dead 2, alongside Melissa Joan Hart and Jesse Metcalfe. Courtesy of Pure Flix Entertainment

Actor David A. R. White stars in this April’s God’s Not Dead 2, alongside Melissa Joan Hart and Jesse Metcalfe. Courtesy of Pure Flix Entertainment

Remaining Agnostic

For some moviemakers, leaving the spiritual stuff out of the equation during production proves to be a working strategy for remaining objective. Armstrong never thought he was making a Christian thriller with Left Behind, though the films are based on a book series that takes the rapture as its premise. “There was no mention of it being a faith-based movie,” he says. “I read it as a regular script and enjoyed it. [My agent] did ask me later whether I thought it strange that people just disappeared on an airplane, and I said, ‘I have worked on Superman, where a man flies; Spider-Man, where a kid swings around New York on a web; Starship Troopers, where giant bugs take over the world, and countless other strange scenarios over the years—so no!’ I looked at it as just another unique storyline.”

“My advice for any filmmaker,” says Kiley, “is to tell your story from the inside-out—how you want to tell it. As soon as we start thinking about what ‘they’ want, we lose sight of our voice.” MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2016 issue. Featured image from Dial a Prayer, courtesy of Giving Films, LLC.

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