- - Wednesday, December 13, 2017


You may not have noticed, but there is a lot of change going on in the media business.

The most visible evidence is the availability of more movies, more TV shows, more channels, more of everything! You may not have noticed because you were too busy watching something on YouTube, Netflix or Amazon Prime … and if you aren’t, your kids are. You, the audience, have an explosion of options. Not complete control yet, but options.

With this more of everything, there is a new trend buried within the overall trends — more faith-based programming. It may even be one of the fastest-growing segments in media.

Why? Read on.

About 20 years ago, while a senior executive at 20th Century Fox, I realized there were some movies generating significant business and flying beneath the “industry radar,” with titles like “Left Behind” and “The Omega Code.” These small movies were selling like much bigger box office movies. They were punching above their weight class!

I was responsible for selling and marketing major blockbusters and studio movies. On the date of a big blockbuster release, we would tour the market to review the execution and impact of our marketing efforts. We created impressive displays of product and merchandise designed to stop customers in their tracks. Invariably, there would be a significant display for these faith-based movies that I didn’t know existed. Nonetheless, the buyers informed me that they were selling very well.

With further research, I discovered that there were many movies that had been produced and then could not get proper “traditional” distribution. These were lower-budget movies that had a very strong evangelical Christian message, but their sales signaled an extremely underserved market … and an opportunity. We started to offer distribution to these “stranded assets,” which allowed us to gain valuable insights into this newfound audience.

Until then, studios had very little interest in so-called faith-based movies. As large public companies — like any other public company — they had to be selective about overtly agenda-driven content, and this was a constituency that was risky and hard to understand. Essentially, these were difficult, “niche” movies. It used to be that the shortest pitch meeting in Hollywood started with “I am here to pitch a faith-based movie.”

Not anymore. Because of the financial success of these niche movies, many studios and networks have seen the light … or the dollars.

Today, there are so many different ways to release a movie, other than traditional wide releases in theaters. Options include the various forms of digital distribution on all of our new devices — Netflix, Amazon, Apple, etc. The competition for the audience share of time and wallet is intensifying. All consumers are more tech-savvy and selective about how their time and money is spent. They are also becoming more difficult to reach. There must be effective marketing.

With this audience fragmentation, the industry is realizing that the “faith-friendly audience” is very loyal, affluent and sophisticated — when targeted properly. This makes them unique and highly sought after in today’s attention-deficit, instant-media world of personalized mass distraction. More important, they spend more — a lot more. Not just on media, but on everything — movies, popcorn, sodas, water, diapers, dog food, technology and everything in between. Evangelicals alone have $2.1 trillion of discretionary income!

Despite some spectacular misses like “Noah,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” and “Ben-Hur,” the market for faith-friendly and faith-based content is undeniable. The opportunities for affirming, positive, inspiring content is substantial. The global demand for media that inspires and entertains is at an all-time high. These movies and TV shows are a lot more profitable as a result. Just ask the Hallmark Channel.

But it’s not that easy.

There are two very different types of “faith-based” or “faith-friendly” movies.

The first type is the “message” movie with an overt Christian agenda, directly and obviously biblical — movies such as “God’s Not Dead,” “War Room,” “The Case for Christ” and “The Star.”

The second type is the “broad” commercial movies that reflect Judeo-Christian values — movies such as “Soul Surfer,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Miracles from Heaven,” “Wonder,” “The Lego Movie,” many superhero movies and many Disney movies.

This is an important distinction to make: Both types are economically viable, but their DNA is fundamentally different — from script, financing, production, casting through to releasing, marketing, and distribution. Failing to understand the full impact of this distinction can have disastrous consequences in the acceptance of the movie and its success.

The challenge for all marketers is the increasing difficulty to break through the competing marketing messages and daily “noise” with any brand campaign. This is true of the faith audience too: Even pastors and megachurches, who have been the “seedling advocates” of the traditional “grassroots” marketing campaigns, are being overwhelmed with requests to endorse movies.

With an increasing number of faith-targeted movies of both varieties, the competition and risk also increases. However, a true understanding of this audience will pay off handsomely to the studios, networks and platforms with leadership that takes the time to engage and understand it. While their principles and values remain constant, their media demands are changing. Misunderstanding or ignoring this audience can be costly.

Ultimately, in the faith-based media space, quality, authenticity and relatability will win. And the prize belongs to those who understand this audience and lead with powerful stories that are well-told.

From the very beginning of the movie business, movies have been used to promote a variety of causes — whether to promote tolerance and justice or to present alternative views of how the world could be or how we wish it to be. To be effective, it still has to be entertaining and connect with the audience.

It’s a brave new world, and audiences will find what they love, especially faith-focused ones! They have choices, and they will vote with dollars and time.

As a film executive, I am committed to helping studios, networks, creators, distributors, and marketers develop programming that unites and inspires audiences. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also a great business when executed properly!

Simon Swart is 30-year veteran of the entertainment industry working at Warner Brothers, Disney and 21st Century Fox. As a senior executive at Fox, he managed the development and release of hundreds of programs from Fox, MGM, Dreamworks and Relativity, including “Avatar,” “Star Wars,” “Ice Age,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Bible.”

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