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Year of the faith films: Movies that tell stories of religion doing well at the box office

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2014

Forget buddy flicks, slasher movies and rom-coms.

This year is shaping up to be the year of the faith film, as Hollywood releases a variety of religious-themed movies with hopes of attracting believers and appealing to secular audiences.

"This year, in a sense, is a test of the genre," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, which measures television and movie viewing statistics. "This year is going to decide, determine, the fate of the faith-based movie. I think it's the last untapped genre to go mainstream."

Religious-themed films have long been produced and distributed independently, but what makes this year different is that box-office expectations for faith-based audiences are nearing equal footing with those for mainstream productions.

"It's no surprise that Hollywood is aiming films at religious crowds in a major way this year," said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. "Religious moviegoers are a very important part of the population, and they want to see their beliefs and ideals represented in major Hollywood movies. It's important for Hollywood to really listen to what these crowds want and to not make assumptions."

Hollywood already is seeing success at the box office:

• "Noah," a big-budget epic starring Russell Crowe, opened this weekend at $44 million, making it the No. 1 movie in the country despite controversies about its adherence to the biblical story.

"Son of God," the follow-up to the unexpectedly successful "The Bible" TV miniseries, was produced on a $22 million budget and has earned $56 million since its debut in late February, according to Box Office Mojo, a website that compiles ticket sales.

"God's Not Dead," a low-budget independent film, opened in only 800 theaters in late March but made more than $8 million in its opening weekend. Earnings so far have totaled $22 million.

A passel of other faith-based films are on the way.

"Heaven Is for Real," based on the best-selling book about a child's near-death experience, is set to open this month.

"Exodus," a big-budget movie starring Christian Bale is scheduled to hit theaters in December.

A biopic about Mother Teresa also is in the works, as is "Mary, Mother of Christ," which is set for next year, according to Internet Movie Database.

Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, a religion professor at Greensboro College in North Carolina, said Hollywood "has evidently discovered Christians as a consumer demographic," but biblical stories have inspired filmmakers for years.

"The Bible has still exerted tremendous influence on art, literature and film in Western culture," Ms. Burnette-Bletsch said. "Its influence has been felt in innumerable Christ figures and Moses figures. What is 'The Lion King' if not the Exodus story?"

Analysts say faith-based audiences can be divided into two groups: those looking for explicit faith messages and those looking for implicit messages.

"One group of Christians attend religiously oriented films in order to have their faith and beliefs confirmed," said Matthew S. Rindge, an associate professor at Gonzaga University's Department of Religious Studies. "And this is also the very same reason why many other Christians will flock to the 'Noah' film, because they want a quality film [that is] also provocative and challenging."

Though it has been a decade since Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was released and made $370 million in the U.S., the film is seen as an example of this evolution of faith-based films.

"That's one of the ones that everyone can hold up and say, 'Now there's a great quality movie,'" said Kirk Cameron, a former TV child actor who leads a Christian film enterprise. "It's a great, classic story. People have been telling that story for 2,000 years."

Mr. Cameron's faith-based film "Fireproof" was the highest-grossing independent movie in 2008. When a trailer for his documentary "Unstoppable" was blocked temporarily by Facebook and YouTube last year, fans flooded the sites with complaints and calls for it to be reinstated. Facebook blamed a glitch in its anti-spam program.

"Many traditionally named faith-based films are low-budget, low-quality films," Mr. Cameron said. "That's what we've come to expect, but that's changing. Technology is changing, talented people can make and distribute [these films] all by themselves now. There's much more opportunity for talented people to make great faith-based films."

David A.R. White, star and producer of "God's Not Dead," is a co-founder of Christian movie studio Pure Flix Entertainment, which is responsible for nearly 40 films. His latest production focuses on the efforts of a college student challenged by his philosophy professor to either acknowledge that "God is dead" or prove His existence.

"But there's six or seven other story lines at the same time, that all intersect in a really incredible way," Mr. White said. "I think that's what's resonating with people. It's not this heady piece of film that only intellectuals can go to. It stimulates the general audience."

However, Erik Lokkesmoe, co-founder of marketing firm Different Drummer, said there is such a thing as "film fatigue."

"There's only so many times you can go and ask a pastor or minister to get behind something before they realize [studios] are marketing movies and making money for other people," he said. "That is going to be the question of 'Noah.'"

To be sure, a market does exist for "faith-affirming" films, Mr. Lokkesmoe said, and when films like "God's Not Dead" makes money, more films like it are green-lighted. But eventually, he said, box office excitement will run its course.

"This is going to continue, but it will burn out and change," he said. "That won't happen for the next two or three years."

Mr. Contrino of BoxOffice.com shared a similar view: "Everything is cyclical in the movie business, and right now we are right in the middle of a spiritually themed cycle. I'm sure it will subside in a couple years only to return again somewhere down the road."

Even Mr. White remains cautiously optimistic about the future of mainstream faith films.

"Hollywood, to me, is a little bit of a fickle place," he said. "After 'The Passion of the Christ,' all these studios just wanted to start faith-based divisions, then quickly shut them down after one or two movies. Some didn't even get out one. With 'The Blind Side,' it happened again. Then, of course, this year is the year of the Bible, and all of a sudden we've had all these faith-based films. It's a wonderful thing. Whether that continues, I don't know."

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