When Mira Nair’s Queen Of Katwe, about the Ugandan child chess phenom Phiona Mutesi, has its gala world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on September 10, some viewers in the spacious Roy Thomson Hall might be in for a surprise: As it turns out, they will be watching a movie about a girl for whom love of chess was inextricably bound with her Christian faith.
That’s barely in Disney’s trailer for the film, in which Mutesi is played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga, while her mother is portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o and her Evangelical mentor by David Oyelowo—who in real life is an outspoken Christian believer. The Agape Sanctuary Ministries, where Mutesi learned chess, is visible only in a fleeting glance at the 32-second mark.
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The faith element is missing, too, from a slideshow of Disney poster art on the IMDbPro website. The various posters are alight with inspirational glow, and lined with exotic, African-themed chess imagery; but the only prominent cross sits on the head of a chess piece.
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The Toronto festival’s official write-up, of course, mentions that Oyelowo’s character, based on the real Robert Katende, is a missionary. But the reference amounts to less than a sentence; and in life, Katende is pious enough to have daughters named Mercy and Hope.
According to people who have seen the movie, Mutesi’s Christianity is present in the film’s imagery and occasional prayerful thought. But it is said to be somewhat downplayed, especially when compared with her open profession of religious belief in a Christian Broadcasting Network video report that pops up on YouTube, right after the almost entirely secular trailer for Disney’s film.
If Disney is soft-pedaling Queen Of Katwe’s Christian themes, that has nothing to do with the spectacular failure of Paramount’s Ben-Hur, an expensive action film that bore its faith, and its prominent pastoral backers, on its sleeve. Weeks before Ben-Hur opened, a faith consultant asked the audience at the Beverly Hills Purpose summit—sponsored by Variety, with Rogers & Cowan—how many of the assembled, movie-savvy believers were aware of Katwe’s Christian element. Only a few hands rose.
In fact, Jonathan Bock and his Grace Hill Media, one of Hollywood’s most prominent faith and family consultants, had been working on Queen Of Katwe, as values-oriented advisers have done in the past with movies like The Help (an enormous hit) and The Finest Hours (a flop). Bock is expected to deliver a video promotion, for instance, that will integrate Disney’s more secular lessons about gamesmanship and aspiration with sequences in which Katende discusses his faith.
But the faith promotions—whether in Christian outlets, or on social media circuits—have been kept largely apart from the mainstream, as Disney contends with a conundrum that has troubled Hollywood at least since Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ in 2004 revealed the enormous power hidden in the faith audience: How do you tap believers without turning off everyone else?
Sometimes, as with The Passion, the faith surge is so large, you don’t really need secular viewers. More recently, Sony Pictures’ relatively low-budget Miracles From Heaven and Heaven Is For Real have become hits by drawing primarily on a values-oriented audience that is said to include about 52 million regular entertainment consumers between ages 18-59, according to statistics gathered by the NRG research firm. That audience is so potent that Screen Engine/ASI recently augmented its mainstream movie tracking system with specifically faith-oriented tracking panels. One of those monitors more than 800 spiritually oriented people of various persuasions, while another takes the pulse of 10,000 “faith influencers,” including pastors and religious professionals nationwide.
But the search for cross-over hits is much trickier. In cultivating faith viewers for movies that also seek a broader, mainstream audience, studios have often hidden their hand, from fear of losing the nonbelievers.
Among the greatest crossover faith-based successes in modern memory was The Blind Side, from Warner Bros and Alcon Entertainment. In that one, Sandra Bullock starred as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a real-life Southern Christian whose white family adopted a black child, Michael Oher, and joined his ride to football stardom. The studio’s original press notes for the film, which had about $256 million in domestic ticket sales after its release in 2009, talked of sports, family love, race, and humanity. But Tuohy’s religious beliefs went unmentioned, even as Warners quietly hired Grace Hill to cultivate religious viewers with sermon notes and a website that was accessed by about 23,000 religious professionals. Only when the film rose to the No. 1 spot at the box office after weeks in release, with a big boost from the faith crowd, did studio-distributed stills that featured Bullock with a cross dangling from her neck become widely visible.
Earlier this year, three of the Film Academy’s best picture nominees—Spotlight, Room and The Revenant—had a faith consultant, Corby Pons, who worked with Different Drummer and his own Wit PR. But the faith and aspirational campaigns were so quiet, even one of the Oscar consultants on Room was later shocked to find that the movie, about a woman being held in sexual bondage, had been promoted with sermon notes.
This time around, Fox Searchlight’s The Birth Of A Nation is being promoted by Pons and an associate, Marshall Mitchell; and a faith push seems inevitable for Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, which stars Andrew Garfield as a religiously motivated conscientious objector who performs heroics as an Army medic in the Pacific during World War II.
Disney executives this week declined to discuss their strategy for selling Queen Of Katwe. But people briefed on the campaign confirmed that Grace Hill is boosting the film on a faith and family circuit that is now covered by a growing phalanx of consultants including Grace Hill, Wit, Motive, Different Drummer, Liquid Soul, Inspire Buzz, the Ribbow Group and a dedicated faith division at Rogers & Cowan.
For now, the effort is mostly sub rosa. But if devout viewers start showing up for Katwe, it’s a fair bet that Disney’s marketers—like those at Warners, with The Blind Side—will put faith in the limelight before the film has run its course.
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