In 2004, Mel Gibson did something remarkable: He detonated Hollywood’s expectations of what a “Christian” movie could do.
“The Passion of the Christ” was a watershed title that, by dint of its $370.8 million domestic haul (a staggering sum for any R-rated movie, and still a record), challenged major studios to take the Christian moviegoing demographic seriously.
Since then, two trends have emerged in response.
First, mainstream Hollywood has tried to recapture Gibson’s lightning in a bottle. There have been some successes — “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” tops the list. It made nearly $300 million domestically and another $450 million globally.
But big-budget, faith-oriented hits have been the exception, not the rule. Other high-profile efforts have bombed, including Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” and Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” both released in 2014. And in the last two weeks, the Mark Burnett and Roma Downey-produced remake of “Ben-Hur” has also flamed out, despite good word of mouth. No doubt there will be more postmortem analyses on why it failed.
Second, independent Christian filmmakers, such as Stephen and Alex Kendrick of Sherwood Pictures, have pioneered the production of Christian movies largely outside the mainstream system (though they rely on Sony’s Provident films for distribution). Their success with “Facing the Giants,” “Fireproof,” “Courageous” and “War Room” — the latter of which was made for just $3 million and generated $67.8 million, according to Box Office Mojo — has inspired other Christian filmmakers to try their hand at making movies aimed at a faithful audience.
Some, such as “God’s Not Dead,” have again stunned. That film, about a Christian college student debating his atheist philosophy professor, multiplied its $2 million budget into $60.8 million. But for every film like that, or similarly successful afterlife-oriented flicks such as “Heaven Is for Real” ($91.4 million) and “Miracles from Heaven” ($61.7 million), there have been many Christian indies that have barely cracked a million dollars.
Which begs the question: What do Christian audiences want in a movie? Based on what we’ve seen in the marketplace the last decade or so, I’d like to proffer some observations.
• Christians want movies that represent their theological convictions. Ridley Scott and Darren Aronofsky may have crafted films that some mainstream critics found daring, tampering as they did with beloved Old Testament tales. But their attempt to “reimagine” these stories came at the expense of the faithful’s interest. Making movies for Christians requires, at the very least, an understanding of, and sympathy for, the Judeo-Christian tradition and its core theological ideas.
• Christian audiences don’t mind message-oriented movies that mainstream audiences might find preachy. Many of the most successful films, including those from Sherwood Pictures and the two “God’s Not Dead” offerings, have emphasized a strong message and a corresponding call to action. “Fireproof” exhorted men to deal with the issue of pornography. “God’s Not Dead” painted a picture of Christians under assault in secular academia and encouraged viewers to engage with the subject of religious freedom. While some have likened these films to sermons, many Christian movie fans apparently resonate with this message-oriented approach to storytelling.
• Christian audiences haven’t embraced edgier, grittier faith-oriented fare. One criticism of the Christian movie genre is that it’s been too sanitized, that it hasn’t effectively told messy stories. That said, the Christian marketplace has largely rejected films that have tried to go in that direction. “Captive,” for example, recounted the remarkable true story of Ashley Smith being kidnapped by a criminal on the lam in 2005, then reading Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Life” to him. The movie wasn’t gratuitous, but it didn’t shy from depicting her drug problem. Audiences, however, shied away from this otherwise inspiring story.
For every generalization about what’s “worked,” however, it should be said that the Christian moviemaking realm is hardly static. As more believers get involved with moviemaking, we’re seeing stories that hew closely to orthodoxy without being quite so overtly message-oriented. This year’s “Risen” and “The Young Messiah” are representative examples of that trend, as are 2011’s “Soul Surfer” and 2014’s “Mom’s Night Out.”
Moving forward, we can expect more outside-the-box surprises — as well as more movies attempting to leverage the generalizations identified here.
• Adam R. Holz is senior associate editor at Plugged In (pluggedin.com), a publication and award-winning website at Focus on the Family that is visited 1 million times a month by people looking for detailed information about popular movies, videos, television, songs and games.