After the strong staying power of this weekend’s God’s Not Dead and the stronger than expected opening of Paramount Pictures’ Noah following on the heels of the surprise opening of Fox’s Son of God earlier this year, is there any doubt anymore Hollywood that if you build it, they will come? That’s three for three … but wait, actually there’s more. Back in 2008, the Kirk Cameron-starring Fireproof from filmmaker and associate pastor of the Sherwood Church, Alex Kendrick, took a lot of people by surprise. On a $500,000 budget raised by the church, the faith-based picture ended up grossing $33.4M when it was released by Samuel Goldwyn. They did it again in 2011, when on a $2M budget, TriStar released Courageous that opened to $9.1M and went onto make $34.5M. Before that, in 2004, the Mel Gibson-directed The Passion of the Christ opened to $83.8M domestically and went on to gross $611M worldwide.
“I think that is a smart assumption,” said Megan Colligan, president of domestic marketing and distribution for Paramount. “Noah is a movie that gets people thinking about big spiritual matters, but also is very entertaining. What Darren (Aronofsky, Noah‘s filmmaker) accomplished isn’t easy to replicate, but its definitely a genre that artists and studios will be thinking about.”
The next heavenly story up will be from Sony with Heaven Is For Real, based on the 2010 book written by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent. The book debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times best-sellers list and then rose to No. 1. Sony purchased rights to the book in 2011 and Randall Wallace (Braveheart) directing from a script by Chris Parker. The movie stars the beloved Greg Kinnear (As Good as It Gets, Rake). Unaided awareness for the film is pretty low at the moment two weeks out, but anything could happen. Anecdotally, the film being talked about with my FB friends in the Midwest, South and West outside of Hollywood was … wait for it … Son of God initially … and now Heaven Is For Real. With the right marketing campaign, Sony could pull off the fourth faith-based film to open decently. Can they do it?
Affirm Films, which is a sub-label of Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions and typically gears its features toward evangelical Christians, has the family comedy Moms’ Night Out starring Patricia Heaton, Sean Astin and Trace Adkins opening on May 9, Mothers Day Weekend. Affirm minted some moolah with the $18 million-budgeted Soul Surfer in April 2011, drawing faith-based crowds and grossing $43.9 million stateside. On October 3, Stoney Lake Entertainment will release the Nicolas Cage action film Left Behind about a commercial airline pilot steering his plane in the aftermath of the rapture. Then in December, there’s Exodus, which is more along the lines of the big-budget Noah. The Biblical tale in Exodus is that of Moses as played by Christian Bale who leads the Israelites out of Egypt to a safe haven. Will it be epic? It’s a Ridley Scott movie. It bows from Fox on Dec. 12.
So will there be more of these Biblical/faith-based films, and can they be sustainable past their first opening weekends and, more importantly, churn a profit for the filmmakers and distributors? “It’s a good question and I don’t know the answer to that,” said Fox’s distribution honcho Chris Aronson. “As far as sustainability and profitability, it’s hard to say because of the differences in the budgets. There are plenty of examples of faith-based films that have been smartly marketing and targeted to a faith-based audiences that have been successful. It proves that there is an appetite for it, but I think that credibility is an issue as well.” He notes that filmmakers and distribs must be involved in catering toward faith-based audiences. “You can’t pull the wool over the faith-based audiences eyes because they will see it and reject it. And I think (Son of God producers) Mark Burnett and Roma Downey had ultimate credibility because they went directly to the opinion makers in the faith-based community and showed that they had the goods.”
Usually, the way these pictures perform is that they open strong and then fall off. That was the case for Son of God which dropped about 60% in its second weekend, but despite that, this re-edited, re-purposed film culled together from The Bible series footage (which appeared on History), has grossed $57.9M as of this weekend. Freestyle Releasing added theaters for God’s Not Dead but that is not the only reason it chalked up the third-highest per screen its second weekend out. With around $7,714 per screen in its second weekend, it is third only behind Noah ($12,335) and Budapest Hotel ($9,007). Its per screen average is also above the second weekend of Lionsgate’s franchise in the making Divergent ($6,732). It only fell 1% in its second weekend out. And lest we forget, we also have Easter around the corner. So will it play through Easter or was this second weekend a fluke? Was it helped by the power of the Duck (as Duck Dynasty stars Willie and Korie Robertson) who made an appearance and helped to promote the film?
Son of God took everyone by surprise when it debuted from Fox with a $25.6M opening weekend. Leading up to that, no one knew what the film was going to do as these kind of faith-based movies are hard to track. The audiences for these films do not fall into the category of the frequent moviegoer. When Son of God opened the first night, it stunned with a $1.2M Thursday. How did they do it? Smart, guerilla marketing. They, like Paramount did as well for Noah, met with church groups and promoted the film heavily through them. They connected with a Colorado-based company called Compassion International, which bought up group-sale tickets and gave them away to churches in 40 U.S. cities, helping to fuel $4.5M in pre-sales. Relativity got involved and repped the film in Berlin. Producers Mark Burnett and wife Roma Downey promoted the movie like crazy. They gave many interviews to faith-based media. They cut a Spanish-language version of Son of God, tapping actor Eduardo Verástegui (Bella) who dubbed it for their 200-plus theater run in select markets with high Hispanic populations. After consulting with Korean church leaders, they did the same in the Korean marketplace for a subtitled version and then received a two-week run from three theaters in Southern California. They went gonzo in all the right ways.
The lesson to studio heads and marketers is — whether its Noah, God’s Not Dead, Son Of God, Fireproof or Courageous – there is an audience for Biblical films as Fox’s own history shows. Perhaps, it takes a thoughtful approach (and time) to pull it off. Son of God played well across the country but these two had and took the time to meet with church leaders and listen to them and then incorporate marketing and distribution strategies to open the film to the particular audience.
For decades, large corporations such as McDonald’s, Burger King, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, etc. recognized the need for diversity in marketing. They, like the auto manufacturers, realized that they could reach specific consumers with the right marketing campaigns, carefully crafted that speaks directly to that consumer group. Delta Airlines, years ago when it started with its first Hispanic campaign, put out ads that accidentally used the wrong wording for ‘sit comfortably’ and instead invited their fliers to ‘sit naked.’ Oops. Microsoft also made a similar blunder when going into Japan by not listening to the local-language experts. But what Hollywood is learning from these type of films is that with the right budget and the right marketing, they can be extremely profitable.
Tapping into the faith-based audience means speaking directly to these infrequent moviegoers of those for Courageous in a way that is credible on a budget that is reasonable. They have proven to be bankable. So, say, a major star anchors one of these — instead of a Kevin Sorbo or Kirk Cameron — and makes a financially-responsible deal for all parties involved, it could prove a new audience for that star and also a nice sum for all profit participants. Also at the same time, these pictures give exhibitors the kind of lower-end budgeted movies between the Hollywood tentpoles that they have been wanting and smart, Yale-educated businessmen like filmmaker Robert Simonds and financier Bill McClashen are venturing into.
These may be infrequent moviegoers for mainstream movies, but they are frequent moviegoers for Biblical and faith-based films. And as Fortune 500 companies have found in developing new products for a new market, there are pitfalls, yes, but if and when you hit it’s a goldmine of loyal customers. And for a star, it could be their biggest openings to date, which was the case for Russell Crowe this weekend in Noah. Combining its marketing to faith-based and to mainstream action audiences, Paramount pulled it off. And Crowe and the studio can thank, in no small part, Emma Watson and her team for her strong social media footprint (and savvy on how to utilize it).
Aronson sums it up nicely: “What this shows is that there is an appetite for these type of movies and that there is a particular segment of the population that is being terribly under-served and if you give them the product they want to see, they will come.”