God’s Not Dead, Noah, Son of God, Heaven Is for Real, Exodus. They all sound like seminary courses or education session titles at a faith-based conference, not movie titles—but that’s exactly what they are.
2014 has been dubbed the year of faith-based films. Research from a number of firms shows that family-friendly, religious films are earning more money every year. Fox News reported in February that for the first time, at least four of the top 10 grossing movies in 2013 at both domestic and international box offices had a family-orientated theme. Earlier this year, Movieguide, a Christian advocacy group, published a study that found that in the top-25 category of best-selling movies, faith-based or family-friendly films averaged $87 million at the box office, while non-Christian themed films averaged $21.6 million.
“God’s Not Dead” cost only $2 million to make. The average production budget of a major motion picture was close to $100 million in 2009, the most recent figure available, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. And as of August, “God’s Not Dead” had brought in close to $61 million in domestic gross sales. The faith-based film trend is not new, but it’s growing faster and vaster. In 2011, “Courageous” brought in $34 million, and it too had an estimated $2 million budget.
“Fireproof” (2008), starring Kirk Cameron, cost half a million to make and grossed more than $33 million. Most famous of all, Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” which came out 10 years ago, grossed more than $370 million. At the time, it was an anomaly in theaters. Today, it would be no surprise to see the $30 million movie (domestic gross) make almost half a billion dollars. “Noah,” “Heaven is for Real,” “Son of God,” and “God’s Not Dead” are among the top 35 grossing films of 2014.
Not only are these Christian-themed movies bringing in big money, they’re also bringing in big names. The “Noah” cast includes Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Watson.
Filling a Need
So why are faith-based films the hot ticket? “From a market perspective, it’s as simple as giving people what they want,” says Joe Boyd, founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions. In general, Americans are asking for more positive, family-friendly entertainment. “God’s Not Dead” worked because it appealed to conservative evangelicals. It didn’t hold back, says Boyd, and it represented Christians in a way they are not normally seen. It also tapped into Christian pop culture by using a popular Christian song in the title and cross-promoting with A&E’s reality television series “Duck Dynasty.”
“I think people always have a hunger for God, and are always looking for fulfillment,” says Todd Burpo, author of No. 1 New York Times bestseller “Heaven is for Real,” which premiered as a feature film in April. “I think people see these films and say, ‘Hey, I need help. I need hope.’”
Actor and writer Jason Burkey, who starred in “October Baby,” says the success of films like “Fireproof” and “Courageous” got the ball rolling. “These were films produced on fairly low budgets that made great profits,” he says. “I don’t believe money was the goal behind those films, but I think Hollywood saw dollar signs and saw there was an audience for faith-based movies, so they started making some of their own.”
Dr. Sarah-Jane Murray, a screenwriter and a film studies professor at Baylor University, believes in empowering the next great generation of storytellers “to not merely tell Christian stories, but to tell excellent stories that inspire the truth of Jesus.” Andy Peterson, president of Different Drummer, a marketing agency, agrees. “I’m most excited about movies that capture the imagination of moviegoers by bringing to life the truth of the Gospel using the art of great storytelling,” he says.
Peterson says film is virtually the only long-form storytelling that culture will tolerate. “We live in a 140-character culture. Virtually all of our entertainment and information is now edited into tiny little pieces,” says Peterson. “But people still pay money to be still for two hours—with their phones turned off—and experience a film.”
Brad Corrigan, member of the rock band Dispatch and creative visionary behind “Ileana’s Smile,” an upcoming documentary about a Nicaraguan girl, says there’s nothing more powerful than a movie that asks big questions about faith. “We live an era where people think faith is a thing of the past,” he says. “It’s mostly portrayed poorly and doesn’t give people the freedom to ask questions, so that’s why so many filmmakers, musicians and storytellers of all kinds are using their talents and money to tell these stories of faith well.”
Not only are these stories becoming more common and more strongly produced, they are also bolder. “It’s good to see some really good quality family-friendly movies coming out,” says Burpo. “They’re movies that are not only talking about morality, but they’re talking about God, too.”
Burkey, however, thinks the best-case scenario is when amazing stories reach out to all audiences. He recently acted in “Moms’ Night Out,” which came out in May. “The movie had some star power behind it, a good budget and a solid script that was not only intended for Christian audiences,” says Burkey. “It is for everyone to enjoy, no matter what background you come from. And that’s what storytelling should be: It should reach as many people from all walks of life at the same time. However, that’s easier said than done.”
Another film, “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” was in theaters this summer. Director and executive producer John Sullivan says large studios are looking to provide faith-based content because “that audience is looking for an entertainment option that’s in the theater.” In the past, most Christian films were independently produced and distributed. But Sony Pictures started a faith-based branch, Affirm Films, which was responsible for “Soul Surfer,” “Moms’ Night Out,” “Fireproof,” “Courageous,” “Heaven is for Real” and others.
Applying to Events
So how does this rise in successful, well-produced faith films affect your next event? “It’s good for filmmakers to be able to connect with audiences that are like-minded,” says Sullivan. His team has been a sponsor of the Wildfire events because it allows them to reach like-minded dads and sons at an event.
“We live an era where people think faith is a thing of the past. It’s mostly portrayed poorly and doesn’t give people the freedom to ask questions, so that’s why so many filmmakers, musicians and storytellers of all kinds are using their talents and money to tell these stories of faith well.” —Brad Corrigan
If 2014 is the year of faith-based films, what does that mean for the future of the movie industry? Corrigan believes there’s no end to the Biblical stories that can be told. “Some of the best stories in the world are Biblical stories, and they are as gnarly as anything out there,” he says. “They have as much sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as anything else. But they clearly demarcate right from wrong.”
3 Ways to Use Faith-Based Films at Your Next Event
1. Have an evening film screening at your event and choose a film that highlights an issue close to the hearts of your attendees. You can find film ideas on websites such as Netflix and Hulu, or you can survey your attendees to see what films they’d like to watch. Be sure to get permission from the filmmakers or distributor to screen the movie. Most filmmakers are looking to grow their audience and are happy to collaborate for a reasonable price.
2. Add a small film festival to your conference. The Justice Conference had great success with this when it added the Justice Film Festival to its regular schedule of events. It has helped to grow their event, reach more people and deepen the impact on attendees.
3. Invite a filmmaker to speak at your event. Filmmakers are naturally great storytellers, and can capture the attention of your audience and share inspiring stories about their faith and work.
Photo credits: Paramount Pictures; Pure Flix Entertainment; Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.; MMXIII Paramount Pictures Corporation and Regency Entertainment Inc.; Lightworkers Media/Hearst Pruductions Inc./20th Century Fox