It’s been a tough year for that large but elusive box office constituency, the religious believers. The biggest faith-market film to date, TriStar’s Miracles From Heaven, did all right, with almost $62 million at the domestic box office; but it far underperformed the same company’s Heaven Is For Real, which took in more than $91 million when it was released in 2014. Meanwhile, Hollywood’s top-ranked Evangelical executive, Rob Moore, was fired as Paramount’s vice-chairman, even as the studio’s Ben-Hur, a high-budget film with Jesus Christ among its characters, flopped badly enough to make its much-maligned Paramount predecessor, the Bible-based Noah, look like hit.
The faith audience hasn’t died, of course. But it is clearly taking a break from the movies.
Actually, 2016 started strong among the faithful, as they provided a secret boost to several among the last round of Best Picture Oscar contenders. The Revenant, Room, and eventual winner Spotlight were all quietly backed by a faith consultant, Wit PR, which promoted the films with sermon notes and world-of-mouth screenings among viewers who value inspirational messages more than action or awesome effects.
In the current season, Wit helped with Warner Bros’ Sully, a box-office success; but the consultant’s best efforts couldn’t salvage Fox Searchlight’s The Birth Of A Nation from the damage wrought by the re-examination of a past rape charge against star-director Nate Parker.
In another faith-related foray, Disney hired Grace Hill Media to do some work for Mira Nair’s Queen Of Katwe. But, by-and-large, the studio soft-pedaled the film’s Christian themes, and the audience never found it. (And the Grace Hill-produced documentary, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, crested at about $2.4 million in ticket sales, a modest debut for what was billed as a new form of cinema, involving in-theater worship.)
Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, which casts Andrew Garfield as a heroic conscientious objector who is also a Seventh Day Adventist, is faring much better. The war drama has collected about $63 million in ticket sales since Lionsgate released it in early November; and the total should grow with awards recognition and the Christmas holiday. But Garfield may face a steeper climb with this other faith-related Oscar entry, Martin Scorsese’s Silence. In that one, he plays a Jesuit sent to Japan in the 17th century, to work among underground Christians who are being tortured and killed. The film will be released in a small number of theaters Friday; but the broad audience won’t see it until January.
By then, U. S. District Court judge Andre Birotte will likely have decided whether to stay his injunction against VidAngel, a service that lets values-oriented viewers watch cleaned-up versions of films, pending appeal. Birotte earlier granted Disney, Fox and Warners the injunction, based on their claims of infringement — another of the year’s setbacks for the faithful.
Still, they are an optimistic lot, the believers, always looking for the next inspiration. Asked earlier this year what he was hearing about Ben-Hur, the faith-audience maven Ted Baehr side-stepped with an artful reference to another project in the works, presumably for the far future, at Warner Bros. “I’m really looking forward to The Apostle Paul,” he said brightly.