- - Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Ever since the record-smashing success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion Of The Christ,” Hollywood, who initially avoided the film like a leper with AIDS, has been clamoring to tap into America’s largest demographic — the faith audience. Since then, dozens of “faith” titles have released with wildly varied results, leaving Hollywood perplexed. Some historically overachieved (“Fireproof,” “God’s Not Dead”) and some historically flopped (“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” “Ben Hur”).

So why are churchgoers so difficult to galvanize at box offices? After all, their ideals are widely known and they’re eager to share them, if you ask. With so much money on the line and built-in advertising avenues — radio networks, print publications, websites, television networks — and churches ready and willing to spread the word, Hollywood should be savvy enough to reliably tap into this market, right? Not really.

We’ve spent nearly a decade at WingClips.com providing church leaders with inspirational and illustrative scenes from popular films and tracking their results, and we’ve been promotionally involved with the majority of faith-based theatrical releases since our launch. Here are a few things we’ve learned along the way that Hollywood doesn’t quite understand:

1. For us by us

Faith audiences prefer to support their own. And, conversely, are immediately wary of throwing support ($$$) in the direction of Hollywood. The most successful faith movies were all passionately made by believers, for believers. Regardless of Mr. Gibson’s now tarnished reputation, the prevailing story when “The Passion” released was that Mr. Gibson, a devout Catholic, felt so compelled to bring his vision of Jesus’ sacrifice to audiences that he shelled out tens of millions of his own money to fulfill this calling. Furthermore, Alex Kendrick, the creative mind behind the independent sensations “Facing The Giants,” “Courageous” and “War Room,” produces his movies using a cast and crew primarily consisting of his own church staff. These behind-the-scenes underdog stories propel faith audiences not only to buy a ticket, but to spread the word like wildfire and organize local showings like it’s their duty as fellow believers.

2. The veracity of Scripture

To its followers, the inerrancy of biblical text actually matters and is unchangeable. Scripture is often referred to as “The Word Of God.” This is not hyperbole. If you are telling a biblical story and need the support of its adherents, be very careful in taking too much creative license in the storytelling (“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” “The Young Messiah”). And, certainly, don’t twist the clear underlying message of one of the most well-known biblical stories to seemingly support a progressive, environmental agenda. I’m looking at you, “Noah.” If you miss the boat here, believers won’t only silently shun your film, they will actively discourage their sphere of influence to do the same.

3. Transparent pandering

While Hollywood rightfully views the faithful as a demographic, churchgoers don’t want to feel like a demographic. And, they do. Just because a film is based on a biblical story or contains biblical themes, and its marketing efforts and promotional resources are specifically schemed to engage the faithful, that alone will not resonate enough with believers to translate into ticket sales. The heart and soul of the film need to shine through in its marketing and within the individuals tasked to carry out that marketing.

4. Quality above all

Too much is made about producing and marketing faith movies to faith audiences. The truth is, churchgoers show up for mainstream movies (even R-rated ones) just as much as secular audiences, and love them just the same. Ask a fervent believer their favorite films, and you will likely hear familiar titles: “Forrest Gump,” “Rudy,” “The Dark Knight,” “Braveheart,” “Despicable Me,” etc. Focusing on finding a story worth telling and executing it well is the greatest barometer for success, even within the faith demographic. And when marketing to the church, there’s no need to clumsily force-feed the same religious messages they’ve heard time and time again. Stories that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit are already “faith” stories. And, Hollywood, we all could use more of those.

Jeremy Irion is a co-founder and vice president of operations at WingClips.com, a company that provides movie clips that illustrate and inspire to church leaders and educators.”

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