The beginning was modest, but a beginning it was for what the makers of Hillsong–Let Hope Rise hope will be a new kind of cinema: They call it “theatrical worship.” The documentary, about Australia’s Hillsong church and Hillsong United soft rock group, opened Friday in about 800 theaters. Ticket sales appeared pointed toward about $2 million for the weekend—not a blockbuster, even on the faith circuit.
But Jonathan Bock of Grace Hill Media, who is a producer of the movie, and Pure Flix, the faith-oriented streaming and releasing company that is distributing it, made progress toward their goal, to merge worship with movie-going.
“This film is intended as a theatrical worship experience,” says a screen crawl at the opening of Hillsong. “The filmmakers welcome your participation.”
“We’re ready,” answered one of the dozen or so viewers at a 1:45 p.m. matinee at Burbank’s AMC Town Center 8 on Friday. Sure enough, a woman eight seats over started singing along with the very first number, voicing the lyric, “Your love is relentless,” with the Hillsong vocalist Taya Smith. (Talk about family-friendly: One little girl brought party balloons.)
The same thing happened in July during a word-of-mouth promotional screening at the Arclight theater in Hollywood. The audience of 200 never jumped and shouted, like the massive Hillsong crowds at the Los Angeles Forum and elsewhere, all depicted in the film. But hands rose toward heaven, and voices rose in song.
It is a fair bet that the filmmakers, and some of Hollywood’s major players, would have welcomed a bigger opening. Disney’s Queen of Katwe, DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls and Walden Media’s The Resurrection of Gavin Stone were among the films with trailers attached to Hillsong. Each of those is looking for a boost from the faith audience, which last month shunned Paramount’s Ben-Hur.
But Bock and Pure Flix have lifted a few voices, and broken a little bit of cinematic ground.