They knew what they had was dynamic. They were smart, did their research and worked hard — and the result was the Son Of God big-screen version that is expected to gross anywhere from $25.7M to $26.7M in its debut weekend. People in this world achieve great success for a reason, but not all get the reason why — whether it be George Clooney, who has used his celebrity to bring well-needed attention to the horrors of Darfur, or Angelina Jolie, whose humanitarian work is also well needed and appreciated, or Mel Gibson, whose The Passion Of The Christ brought the word of God beyond borders anyone had ever seen before ($611M worldwide — that’s a lot of eyes). These are the kings of charity, who understand their responsibility in the world. Mark Burnett — the reality TV entrepreneur behind such phenoms Survivor, The Voice, Shark Tank, and The Apprentice — understands the reason why, too. He and wife Roma Downey know in their core that they are on that path now — to spread the word to as many people as possible, he said.
On the wings of angels (and butterflies) and in many languages — the marketing behind this film is very interesting: The team wisely dubbed a Spanish version for this weekend’s movie debut, and it was put in 200 theaters; they also did a subtitled Korean-language version and placed it in 15 select theaters. “Because we are a small organization, we don’t have to ask permission — we just do it,” Burnett said. The theaters playing Spanish-language Son Of God grew in a just few days as they were booking theaters and 4% of the gross came from those theaters; 22% of the audience was Hispanic. In addition, the film had a phenomenal 91% rating on PostTrak and was heavily weighted to excellent with an impressive 72%. In addition, it has an incredible 80% recommend and played 62% female to 38% male with 82% of moviegoers over age 25.
Related: Hot Trailer: Fox’s ‘Son Of God’
Here’s the thing: Son Of God was edited into a movie before History’s miniseries The Bible. “We got the team that did Gladiator and we had to redo everything for the big screen,” Burnett said. “It took about a year of editing, but we did it.” Burnett and Downey followed their gut and kept moving forward, determined to fulfill a bigger purpose, with a quiet knowledge that they were put here for something greater. They 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. No one knew what this little movie was going to do. There was no model for it. And then it opened on its first night … boom! $1.2M. Everyone sat up and took notice. Immediately.
“Our mission is that over the next 30 or 40 years that more people alive on Earth will have seen Son Of God and it will have spread the word of God,” said Burnett. The film already has been sold in 60 territories worldwide. Their 10-part TV series about the Bible had already been broadcast weekly on History in March 2013 to record-breaking ratings. It began with 13.1M viewers, stayed consistently around 10M viewers and ended with 14.1M. It also did well on home video. And now a new audience is finding this on the big screen. Together, Burnett and Downey worked with many denominations to get it right. “We worked with the Anti-Defamation League to dispel any misunderstandings that happened in the past. We listened to everyone. We sent out the scripts to 40 advisers. We were unwavering in doing it the right away.”
It all began on the set of The Bible series in Morocco, Downey and Burnett held screenings with footage cut together from daily shoots for the crew to see. The entire crew. Everyone, no matter what their jobs were, would come in and watch what had been shot. They were not dailies but edited, completed pieces. While watching one of these screenings, Downey turned to her husband and said: “This is really good. We should be making a big film.” And from that footage and those words began Son Of God. The movie actually was edited and done before The Bible series.
“We thought initially that we would just get a couple of theaters and just show it to friends,” said Burnett. “Then we thought we’d do something like Kirk Cameron did.” In 2008, the 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. “People started saying to us, you know, this is really good. So we decided to send a screener of the movie out to a couple of studios,” he said.
Burnett ended up speaking to his friend, DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg. “He said you don’t know anything about this. Why don’t you call Tom Sherak? You need to see Tom.” Sherak, a longtime/former Fox executive and former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was consulting for filmmakers and studios at the time. Since Burnett did not know Sherak, Katzenberg called and made the introductions. “Tom saw the film and said to us, this movie is really, really good, and I think that Fox would be really great for this.”
Burnett already had a relationship with Fox’s home entertainment unit which had released the DVD of The Bible. Sherak introduced Burnett and Downey to Fox chairman Jim Gianopolous “and Jim got it,” said Burnett. “Jim said, ‘why don’t you come in with my team at Fox? And in one day we went in with Tom and (Burnett’s legal eagle) Brian Edwards and by that night the deal was done.” The terms of the distribution deal was agreed upon. Fox would handled marketing and distribution costs and it would be released wide. “A key part this was Tom Sherak. He was instrumental in everything. He advised us. We really, really bonded with Tom. He was our guide.” No doubt still is.
Relativity came aboard and represented Son of God in Berlin. For the Spanish-language version of Son of God, they tapped actor Eduardo Verástegui (Bella) who dubbed it for their 200-plus theater run in select markets with high Hispanic populations. For the Korean subtitled version, which has gotten a commitment of a two-week run from three theaters (in Los Angeles, Gardena and Anaheim) they consulted with Korean church leaders (just as they had with the Spanish-language version) to, as Burnett said, “make sure we got it right.” Guess what, guys? The Man Upstairs is smiling. So is everyone’s angel, Tom Sherak.