(NOTE: I’ve been biding my time in publishing this piece for a bit because I wanted to wait until after the 2018 Easter weekend to see if my theory about what makes “Christian” films successful at the box office is still valid. I believe it is – I wouldn’t be publishing this piece if I didn’t – but I’ll leave it up to you to make that decision for yourself. It’s entirely possible that I’m missing another variable or two, and if you believe me to have done so, please let me know as I’d be happy to consider an alternative theory.)
I generally try to stay away from mainstream media news websites, as their headlines are usually quite deceptive, inflammatory, or both, and the lack of details within their “news” pieces are obvious. But this piece, which was forwarded to me by a relative, gave me a perfect foundation to write my own piece on this subject. The subject: the success of independently produced “Christian” films, and the reason why people should make more of them. Or, as this Fox News headline states,
You can read the piece if you want, but I’ll save you the click and summarize the piece so you don’t have to subject yourself to the typical name-calling and slander that comes from partisan outlets such as Fox News. Basically, this Fox News writer – Lauren DeBellis – believes that the success of the movie I Can Only Imagine is due to “people of faith in this country… speaking loudly.” She goes on to say that the growing trend of Christians experiencing hate (wait, are we talking about “people of faith” or “Christians,” DeBellis?) have essentially ostracized and angered the majority of America’s population. DeBellis writes,
“Christians are growing tired of this increasing trend that makes their faith the punchline of jokes and the target of public taunting by the far left, who view themselves as morally superior simply because they have a microphone.”
Ignoring the fact that this piece is basically taunting the far left, DeBellis continues,
“As Christians, we can only imagine a time when anti-Christian bigots can finally understand that while they may be louder, we make up a not-so-silent, large portion of society in this country. We buy movie tickets, concert tickets, watch TV and vote. If you observe the hatred you hear directed at Christians, in just about every instance it’s been responded to by taking the high road with dignity and class. That’s because as Christians we don’t look to Hollywood, or its high-profile counterparts for validation. They are not our hope for the future. If they truly want to coexist, they need to start listening and stop ridiculing.”
Again, in order for this piece to be logically consistent, we have to ignore the fact that DeBellis wrote this piece because she believes in some sense of validation at the box office. The conclusion she comes to is quite baffling. If Christians “don’t look to Hollywood, or its high-profile counterparts for validation,” then what should we do about the two high-profile film distributors that released I Can Only Imagine to theaters? Lionsgate is headquartered in Santa Monica, CA, and Roadside Attractions is headquartered in Los Angeles, CA – right smack dab in the middle of – yes, you guessed it – Hollywood.
It’s interesting to note that by widely releasing I Can Only Imagine, Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions seem to know a bit more about coexisting with audiences than our featured Fox News writer.
As poorly written and inflammatory as this piece is, it did get me thinking. Are Christian audiences really “speaking loudly” when it comes to supporting box office films that feature their confessed worldview front-and-center? To answer this, we need to look at an expansive view of the success of Christian films at the box office in the last few years. I’ve decided to span the “faith-based” films that were released between 2014-2018. The following stats are pulled from Box Office Mojo and reflect only the total domestic box office intake of a film and not the home release intake. The films will be listed in reverse chronological order, so the films that are still in theaters will be at the top of the list. A film’s title will be in green if it earned more than its production budget back at the box office, red if it didn’t, and uncolored if the film’s budget wasn’t reported. I’ve also grouped the following films into three categories, as I believe these categories to be important to my conclusion. These categories are “Modern Fiction,” “Biblical Historical Fiction,” and “Adaptations.” Some films may fit into two categories, and if that’s the case, I will list them in both categories. Finally, there is a chance that I may miss some releases in this listing, so for the sake of consolidation (and time), I will list all 2017-18 “Faith-based” films, but I will be more selective with pre-2017 releases. However, I promise to hit all of the highlights.
(2018) (As of April 2, 2018)
God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness – $2,969,154
I Can Only Imagine – $56,692,432
Let There Be Light – $7,233,471
Same Kind of Different as Me – $6,423,605
The Shack – $57,386,418
A Question of Faith – $2,587,072
All Saints – $5,802,208
Slamma Jamma – $1,687,000
The Resurrection of Gavin Stone – $2,303,792
I’m Not Ashamed – $2,082,980
God’s Not Dead 2 – $20,774,575
Beyond the Mask – $1,236,094
Captive – $2,583,301
War Room – $67,790,117
Woodlawn – $14,394,097
Old Fashioned – $1,914,090
Do You Believe? – $12,985,600
A Matter of Faith – $677,577
Believe Me – $23,419
God’s Not Dead – $60,755,732
Heaven is for Real – $91,443,253
Left Behind – $14,019,924
Mom’s Night Out – $10,429,707
Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas – $2,783,970
The Identical – $2,827,666
The Remaining – $1,169,603
The Song – $1,009,620
HISTORICAL FICTION (both modern and “Biblical” settings)
(2018) (As of April 2, 2018)
Paul, Apostle of Christ – $11,943,415
Samson – $4,714,408
The Case for Christ – $14,682,684
The Star – $40,852,824
Silence – $7,100,177
Hacksaw Ridge – $67,209,615
The Young Messiah – $6,490,401
Risen – $36,880,033
Last Days in the Desert – (Not Available)
Woodlawn – $14,394,097
Exodus: Gods and Kings – $65,014,513
Noah – $101,200,044
Son of God – $59,700,064
ADAPTATION (based off of a book, song, or older film)
(2018) (As of April 2, 2018)
I Can Only Imagine – $56,692,432
Captive – $2,583,301
The results I found weren’t all that surprising, but there are a few observations that need to be highlighted.
- The bulk of “faith-based” films or “Christian” films are set in modern times and are fictionalized stories.
- Most “faith-based films” earn back what the film cost to produce, and by some high multipliers at that. However, most of these films have exceptionally low budgets, especially by Hollywood standards. For instance, the film A Matter of Faith made back what it cost to produce even though it only made around $600k at the box office.
- The low budgets of these films tend to throw off those who aren’t so familiar with the average budget it takes to make a feature-length film that gets widely distributed to theaters. They may see that these films exceed box office expectations and make back twice, 3x, or even 5x their budget, but when they only cost a couple million dollars or less, that’s not too high of a bar to reach if a film gets a wide release.
- The historical fiction category seems to be the riskiest for studios to gamble on. Interestingly enough, this is the category that Hollywood pours their money into when it comes to production budgets. Even though films like Exodus: Gods and Kings and Noah had high budgets and were helmed by popular directors, they failed to earn back what the studios poured into them.
- This could be due to higher costuming and set costs, but films like Risen and Son of God seemed to make it work with their period costuming and sets.
- Audiences also seem to gravitate towards films taking place in New Testament times more than Old Testament times, with the exception of The Young Messiah, which was creative nonfiction about the life of Jesus as a child which drew from not only the Gospels but also the apocrypha.
- Modern biopics such as The Case for Christ, Woodlawn, and Hacksaw Ridge also seem to interest and resonate with audiences more than biopics featuring Biblical characters like Paul or Samson.
- I have a feeling that biblical illiteracy has something to do with this, but that will need to be a post for another time.
- A box office total can mean many things, but it can’t account for exactly how many people saw a film. Some people go see a film multiple times in theaters. Some people buy tickets in advance but aren’t able to make the showing. Some people leave the theater before the movie is finished. But if I may speak from my own circles, both professional and relational, I don’t know many people who have seen most of the films on this list. Films like The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, which by all accounts should have been warmly received in Christian circles, are still unknown. I also don’t know anyone who has gone to the theater to see Paul, Apostle of Christ or Samson this year, even though they have both been playing in local theaters, but I know many who have reported back to me what they thought about I Can Only Imagine.
This last point brings me to my conclusion about “faith-based” box office hits. Surely, as we’ve seen in the list above, there have been plenty of “faith-based” or “Christian” films for people to see in theaters, and I know I’ve seen many of them on streaming services too, so it’s not that most are inaccessible. While there are plenty of options to go see, I just don’t think Christians care about seeing “Christian” films.
Unless they’re adaptations.
If you look at the adaptation category, every single one – save for the period pieces like Silence and The Young Messiah – make back their budget. My opinion is that this is due to the fact that these films rely on source material that Christians are already very well-versed with. Take I Can Only Imagine for starters. This song has been getting play on Christian radio and worship services since 2001. Why should we be surprised that movie about a song that has been stuck in our collective heads for well over a decade is still going strong in theaters? The Shack is based on a best-selling novel published in 2007 that had already sold over a million copies a year after its release, regardless of its muddy theological waters. “The Case for…” series always seems to have a spot on the shelf of any church library, and we all know the impact of the “Left Behind” series, as Christians still reference them today in discussions.
Really, all this observation boils down to is that Christian audiences are no different from the majority of American moviegoers – they flock to what’s familiar. Just take a gander at the amount of sequels, prequels, remakes, and adaptations that Disney is churning out. Just look at all of the different cinematic universes that keep popping up (for better or worse). If you go see a film in theaters, I guarantee that you’ll see at least one trailer for a sequel, prequel, remake, or adaptation (if not three). The topic of original films disappearing from the big screens is a discussion that has been going on for some time now, but the future doesn’t appear to hold anything different for audiences. While they’re still quality storytelling entertainment, original films like Ready Player One or original TV shows like Stranger Things still draw audiences in with the promise of nostalgia and familiar sights. Audiences don’t appear to want to take steps outside of their comfort zones.
There are outliers to this theory, of course. War Room is one of them. While it wasn’t based on a book, it did spawn a popular devotional called “The Battle Plan for Prayer” that spread like wildfire through the Christian community. The same goes for Fireproof. I can’t recall how many times I’ve seen “The Love Dare” being carried around by a Christian. While these materials didn’t contribute to the box office intake of the film, it does keep those films at the forefront of many Christians’ minds when it comes to remembering what “faith-based” films they’ve seen. Say what you will about the Kendrick Brothers, but they know how to keep their material familiar and relevant to their audiences.
Again, I could be wrong in thinking that my observations point to the similar trends we see with moviegoers as a whole, and I’d love to hear what others think. But I can safely guarantee that looking at this list of “faith-based” films – which is larger than I expected it to be – proves that Hollywood is, in fact, attempting to appeal to Christian audiences. Christians just aren’t responding back to every single one of them, just like any other genre out there. Some films sink, some soar; some are marketed consistently, some aren’t advertised at all. But if Christians really do want to send a message to Hollywood (if that’s really that necessary), maybe they should take a step out of their comfort zones, put their money where their mouths are, and see more Christian films in theaters.