The Rise of Faith-Based Films

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April 27, 2017

M arch 2016 will bring moviegoers the expected amount of pre-summer action flicks — but it also will supply audiences with a pair of highly anticipated faith-inspired films. They may not eclipse the big-name blockbusters, which include the likes of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” and “The Divergent Series: Allegiant,” but the nationwide releases of “The Young Messiah,” and “Miracles from Heaven” this month represents the movie industry’s growing trend of portraying stories of faith from the silver screen.

Faith received a resurgence as a movie genre in 2014, when “Son of God,” “God’s Not Dead” and “Heaven is For Real” all made at least $50 million within a two-month span. 2015 followed up with “The War Room,” currently the sixth-highest grossing Christian film of all time, and 2016 will attempt to continue in the success with the release of several films with religious undertones.

Faith-based films are nothing new in Hollywood: they were once among the most popular films around. After many years of neglect, the market has recently proven to be fruitful as there is a higher number of faith-based films being released now than there ever has been. In 2014, 60 percent of films contained redemptive content; in 1991 only 10 percent of films did.

A number of independent religious studios released films in the early 2000s. In October 1999, the Gener8Xion Entertainment, the production company for Trinity Broadcasting Network, released “The Omega Code,” a fictional story about ancient codes hidden within the Torah. The film made $12.6 million at the U.S. box office. In March 2000, Utah-based distribution company Excel Entertainment released “God’s Army,” a film about LDS missionaries in Los Angeles, that made $2.6 million. Although these numbers don’t compare to profits from recent faith-based films, they show an interest in religiously themed films.

“God’s Army” was a movie that showed the struggles and successes of Mormon missionaries. Director of Excel Entertainment Arthur Van Wagenen, attributed the movie’s success to the novelty for Mormons seeing themselves on film for the first time.

“The LDS Church had done a lot of media up until that time for years and years and years and had their own motion picture studio, but that was sort of a first Mormon-themed film with Mormon characters, religious characters, that was meant for commercial consumption by a niche audience, and it was wildly successful for a small independent film,” Van Wagenen said.

It’s uncertain if “The Omega Code” and “God’s Army” specifically inspired other Christian studios to make similar films, but they can be seen as the first two independent Christian films to achieve commercial success in this current wave of faith-based films. Both studios continued to produce films with similar success.

Several independent Christian studios nationwide started to produce films. One of these studios is Sherwood Pictures, which was founded by Alex and Stephen Kendricks, two brothers who lead the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. The Kendricks brothers released Christian films including “Facing the Giants” in 2006, grossing $10.2 million at the box office; “Fireproof” in 2008, grossing $34.47 million; and “War Room” in 2015, grossing $72.8 million.

In total, according to data provided by boxofficemojo.com, more than 30 movies classified as Christian films made at least $1 million at the box office in the first decade of the 2000s. This is twice as many Christian films as the past three decades combined. Thanks to movies like “War Room” and “God’s Not Dead,” this success doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

Faith-based Films at the Box Office (non-adjusted) Create bar charts

Van Wagenen attributed all this success to a market that had been underserved for years. Director and producer Dan LaPray suggested this success could possibly be attributed to the current world environment — a world in which he believes there is still a lot of good people. LaPray’s company, Number 7 Entertainment, co-produced the 2015 release “Just Let Go.”

“There’s a lot of turmoil in the world. There is terrorism. There is war all around, even if it’s not something we’re facing in the United States on a daily basis, other countries and nations are,” LaPray said. “And calamities and political divides that are bursting up all over the place and faith is starting to be minimized. Not necessary anymore. Old-school. Something that people don’t care about. At least that’s what the media is portraying, right? But I think that most people in the world still subscribe to a faith and subscribe to a belief system.”

Hollywood’s Influence

This current trend began with independent films, and major studios and big-name filmmakers have joined the party and helped keep it going.

For instance, Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” in 2004 set the record for the highest grossing R-rated movie ever — a record it still holds. In an exclusive interview with ZENIT in March 2003, a year before “Passion of the Christ” was released, Gibson revealed that his faith was part of the reason why he wanted to tell this story.

“There is no greater hero story than this one — about the greatest love one can have, which is to lay down one’s life for someone,” Gibson said in the interview. “The Passion is the biggest adventure story of all time. I think it’s the biggest love story of all time: God becoming mad and men killing God. If that’s not action, nothing is.”

Following the huge success of “The Passion of the Christ,” Walden Media adapted C.S. Lewis’ popular fantasy series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” which the author wrote as a Christian allegory. The first of three movies was released in 2005.

In 2014, in addition to the aforementioned success of “Son of God,” “God’s Not Dead” and “Heaven is For Real,” there were two biblical epics made by major studios. In March 2014, Paramount Pictures released “Noah,” which was directed by Darren Aronofsky and starred Russell Crowe and Emma Watson. In December 2014, 20th Century Fox released “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton.

It’s worth noting that Hollywood-produced Biblical epics are nothing new. One of the earliest films in Hollywood was a 1912 movie titled “From the Manger to the Cross,” which told the story of Jesus’ life. It earned $1 million at the box office, an impressive feat considering ticket prices cost less than a quarter back then.

After a few decent hits in the ’20s and ’30s, religious films and biblical epics were hugely popular from the ’40s through the ’60s. In fact, some of the films released then are the biggest films of all time when adjusted for ticket price inflation.

According to boxofficemojo.com’s list of top-grossing films of all-time, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” is the sixth highest grossing movie of all-time when adjusted for ticket price inflation. It earned $65.5 million in the U.S. box office in 1956, which is currently the equivalent $1.1 billion.

William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” from 1959 isn’t far behind at No. 13, having earned $817 million adjusted. Other movies from that time that earned big include “The Robe” (1953), “Samson and Delilah” (1948), “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945) and “Demetrius and the Gladiators” (1954).

Religious films became less lucrative as audiences in the ’70s latched onto different types of films, which included Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and George Lucas’ “Star Wars,” both of which were influential in starting a new trend in Hollywood through the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s.

The Future of Faith-Based Films

With both independent and major Hollywood studios invested in faith-based films, it seems safe to say that faith-based films will be around for a while. However, Van Wagenen notes that filmmakers need to continually put out material that will keep people’s interest.

“I do think that the market goes in waves and unless the religious filmmakers find a way to crossover like we talked earlier, unless they’re identifying really universal themes and stories and couching their stories in a more accessible, palatable way, I do think we’ll see a lull,” Van Wagenen said. “If we’re able to do that, if we’re able to articulate religious themes and even portray religious characters in a way that’s accessible to other people who aren’t from that religious tradition, I think heaven is the limit.”

Ultimately, the market is determined by the audience. People must be interested enough to go to the theater and pay $10 for a movie. Many faith-based movies were popular early on because the market was underserved; now filmmakers may need to step up their game to provide continued interest.

A look at the upcoming schedule of movie releases seems to indicate filmmakers understand this. There will be movies like “God’s Not Dead 2,” released on April 1, 2016, that will most likely follow the formula from the first movie. But other things are being done to keep the market fresh.

In February, the movie “Risen” was released, directed by Kevin Reynolds and starring Joseph Fiennes. The film tells the story of Christ’s resurrection from the point of an unbelieving Roman soldier. On March 11, “The Young Messiah” will hit theaters, followed by “Miracles from Heaven” on March 18. In May, the Sundance film “Last Days in the Desert” will tell the imagined story of Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert.

Rumors abound about which religious epic Hollywood will try next. Paramount’s remake of “Ben-Hur,” which will be released in August, is a viable option. If the adaptation is successful, more religious epics are sure to come.

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