Sex and violence have been marketable commodities since the dawn of cinema. They aren’t everyone’s bag, though. Some folks desire entertainment that’s more wholesome and reflective of their personal spirituality. Religious movies — also known as “faith films” — have fulfilled that role for decades. Once upon a time, they were super low-budget productions that went from town to town playing in church basements. Homemade flyers stuck on church bulletin boards were the primary source of promotion. In the early 2000s, faith films started making a more concerted effort to come above ground. Companies like Cloud Ten Pictures began producing them specifically for the home video market. They were still low budget, but they now featured recognizable, if washed-up, actors like Stephen Baldwin, Jeff Fahey, Corbin Bernsen, and Mr. T. (Yeah, I know. You pity the fool who calls Mr. T washed-up. Get an original joke.)
Then, in 2004, something really remarkable happened. Mel Gibson released his unabashedly religious film The Passion of the Christ. It captured the attention of Christian audiences, but also mainstream crowds, who wanted to see what the fuss over the controversially violent movie was all about. The end result was a box office gross of $370 million in the U.S. alone. It was a sign that faith films could be professionally made and play in the same multiplexes as the latest Katherine Heigl rom-com or Marvel superhero movie. Makers of faith films suddenly saw an opportunity to get wider play for their stories. In 2008, the door kicked open even further with the release of Fireproof, a $500,000-budget Christian film starring former Growing Pains actor Kirk Cameron. The movie shocked everyone by opening in the top five and eventually earning $33 million. The most surprising thing of all was that Kirk Cameron was apparently a box office draw.
Since that time, a slew of faith films have been released into the marketplace, including Courageous, To Save a Life, Last Ounce of Courage, Letters to God, Like Dandelion Dust, The Christmas Candle, Grace Unplugged, A Strange Brand of Happy, and the Ja Rule-starring I’m in Love with a Church Girl. (Apparently washed-up rappers can have just as successful a career in religious cinema as washed-up actors.) Even if these movies flew under the radar of most moviegoers, they doubtlessly signaled a “Christian New Wave” in cinema.
That wave has been bolstered by a proven commodity: the grassroots marketing campaign. To supplement its traditional PR push, the makers of The Passion of the Christ reached out to church groups nationwide. Other faith films have since co-opted that idea. You won’t see trailers for Christian-themed films playing before, say, Need for Speed, nor will you see commercials during Modern Family or The Walking Dead. However, a lot of effort goes into reaching out to congregations. Producers and distributors of faith films will often screen their works in advance for influential religious leaders, hoping to procure an official endorsement. They also encourage churches to buy blocks of tickets to distribute or organize large-group outings to see a particular film. When the subject and tone of a movie looks promising to churchgoers, as the current Kevin Sorbo drama God’s Not Dead (now outselling Need for Speed) has proven, they can turn out in full force.
With demographic success under their belt, faith films are now looking to bum rush the proverbial show. Major studios, seeing dollar signs above the heads of Christian audiences hungry for product that reflects their values, are getting in on the act, and so are A-list stars. Son of God, the recent hit about the life of Jesus Christ, was released by 20th Century Fox. Lionsgate has successfully released a string of Tyler Perry movies, which always include a Christian message in between scenes of Madea sassing her family. Paramount is about to open Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, based on one of the most famous Bible stories. It stars Oscar winners Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. Also on the way is Sony’s Heaven Is for Real, starring Greg Kinnear and, later this year, Ridley Scott’s Exodus, a big-budget telling of how Moses helped lead Israelite slaves out of Egypt. Its cast includes Christian Bale, Sigourney Weaver, and Ben Kingsley. The Bible is suddenly the hottest book in Hollywood. Take that, Divergent!
Christianity Today magazine estimates that there are more than 246 million Christians in the United States. Many of them are thrilled to have cinematic options that deal with subject matter near and dear to their hearts. There’s a ton of money to be made. But to go beyond their core audience and achieve widespread appeal, faith films will need to conform somewhat to the norm. One reason why so few movies in the Christian New Wave have broken out into the mainstream is that, as a rule, they tend to focus more on the sermon than on the storytelling. It’s not uncommon for plots to grind to a screeching halt so that a character can launch into an extended homily. That’s fine for audiences who want a sermon, not so much for those looking for some dramatic momentum. And seriously, not every movie needs to end with a miracle to drive the point home. Faith films will also need to continue casting major stars in lead roles and, just as importantly, getting innovative directors behind the camera. Even most of the recent faith films have had all the directorial finesse of a daytime soap opera. Moviegoers who may not be interested in specifically religious content will still buy a ticket to see the latest effort from a big star or a visionary director.
Noah, Heaven Is for Real, and Exodus will be the litmus test for whether the Christian New Wave shatters the glass ceiling or merely hits a wall. If any of them rake in blockbuster numbers, Hollywood will continue catering to the Christian audience. If not, we’ll likely be seeing more independently-made Kirk Cameron and Kevin Sorbo pictures making their way into multiplexes. Either way, faith films aren’t going anywhere. There are too many religious folks who want to go to the movies, and too many producers willing to cater to their desires. If those behind the Christian New Wave play their cards right, though, they have a chance to unleash a major cinematic movement that could truly spread God’s Word. Will they succeed? Well, they do have a certain someone on their side.