- - Wednesday, December 13, 2017


What happens when you’ve been selling a certain product for 70-plus years, have an established business model, a customer base and suddenly millions of new customers show up and expect you to make, market and sell that product differently?

That’s exactly the scenario that unfolded in February 2004 when 10 million or so Americans that I like to call UFGs (Unidentified Film Goers) showed up opening week to watch “The Passion of the Christ” in theaters.

What resulted was a seminal moment in Hollywood history because the film overperformed in ways that were nothing short of stunning. The Los Angeles Times and Variety are two publications that typically forecast box office performance with generally accurate outcomes, but on that particular week, they were beyond way off — what they had predicted to be a $15 million to $30 million haul turned into a five-day box office bonanza of $125 million.

As the producer of the film’s inspired-by soundtrack who also worked on marketing, I saw what did — and didn’t happen — behind the scenes that produced such massive numbers. The film would go on to gross $370 million in the United States, but why the audience responded as it did seems to still be a mystery to some — and the misunderstanding of these consumers continues to this day. Or it may be willful ignorance on the part of people who are concerned that if it means what it appears to mean, they may have to radically change the way they do business.

When producers and marketers subsequently attempted to make a film for this audience and failed to connect with the UFGs, like clockwork they often tried to get reporters to write follow-up stories that often went something like this: “We made a film for you people and you didn’t show up, so we’re done trying to please you!”

Variations of the above were lobbed at various flops with this audience, including “Noah,” “Last Days in the Desert,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” and others. In the same way that a Portland foodie might down-talk a guy from Arkansas who prefers Chick-fil-A to a filet mignon, these responses by Christian hipsters attacking Christian hicksters are both condescending and entirely predictable.

But people like what they like. And no amount of shaming can force conservative Christians into watching things they don’t. After all, it’s their money, and money is tight these days. They have definite tastes, and they really do deserve to be at least understood before they’re mocked or ignored.

And it is those tastes that are often misunderstood. For one thing, just because this audience is willing to patronize low-quality films starring actors who were big in 1979 doesn’t mean that’s what they truly want, any more than it would be fair to say that you liked moldy bread if I offered it to you and you hungrily ate it after being denied food for three days. The point is, rather, they are so desperate for content that doesn’t insult their values, that they will watch content below typical standards of Hollywood quality if they must.

I had to explain this once to one of the most powerful moguls in Hollywood, who, shortly after “God’s Not Dead” made $62 million at the box office, called me into his office and said he too wanted to get in on such a fantastic business model. “I want to spend $2 million and make $60 million like that film,” I remember him bellowing. When I suggested he spend $10 million or $15 million and up the quality level instead, he seemed deflated and quickly lost interest. Somehow he had learned the wrong lesson: that this audience craved low-quality movies.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the soon-to-be-released film, “Mary Magdalene,” is going to completely miss this target audience next year. I haven’t seen the film, and can’t judge its artistic merits, but I can already spot the chatter among this crowd, notably a Facebook friend who is in this demographic who posted this last week: “I expect this to be rife with blasphemy and heretical viewpoints. I have zero trust in these filmmakers and from the IMDB page and surfing around this looks like an agenda film and not for Christians. I hope I’m wrong.”

This is the level of sophistication among many in this audience, and they watch and listen carefully, noting the personal views of those involved in crafting a movie and deducing (often correctly) that the film will follow those views.

The traditionalist moviegoer is among the most misunderstood species in the world today. The love/hate relationship between this audience and Hollywood has been well documented by many, but the many misunderstandings about them, including what they do and don’t want to see, as well as how they are reached continues to baffle many in Hollywood. For decades, this demographic simply didn’t participate in filmgoing in any meaningful way. For reasons that ranged from being told that all movies were evil to believing that filmic depictions of Jesus Christ constituted blasphemy, they often didn’t participate as consumers.

Now that has all changed, and they are ready to go to the movies if we’ll have them. But if they’re to stick around beyond one movie, we will need to better understand their likes, dislikes, interests, hopes and dreams, what they do and don’t want to see on the big screen, who they want to see crafting these films and how they want to hear about them.

A key question remains: Do we really want to understand them? Or are we afraid that if we do, then we’ll be forced to make movies differently?

Mark Joseph is an award-winning music and film producer, marketing expert, author and founder of MJM Entertainment Group. He has worked on the development and marketing of 53 films and served as a producer on “The Vessel,” “Max Rose,” “America,” “Japan: Searching For The Dream,” “Frank vs. God,” “Doonby” and “The Unknowns.” His next projects are “Silence Patton” and “No Safe Spaces,” starring Adam Carolla (which will release in 2018), and book, “Rock Gets Religion: The Battle for the Soul of The Devil’s Music,” releasing Jan. 23, 2018.

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