No one would argue that the diversity of Christian films has come a long way since the original “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.”
“It started with the Kirk Cameron movie, ‘Fireproof.’ That really opened floodgates, and everyone started to think there was big money to be made here,” says Corbin Bernsen, the former “L.A. Law” star now at the forefront of the movement. “We live in a screwed-up world. We want something to believe in,” he says.
Michael Scott, CEO and co-founder of faith-based studio Pure Flix, agrees. “The increasing number of Christian films coming out of Hollywood speaks to the audience’s hunger,” he says. “They’re tired of sex and violence. They want to see something that will lift their spirits.”
The box office numbers prove that Bernsen and Scott are on to something. At $370.3 million, 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ” holds the title of the highest grossing R-rated film in the United States, according to Forbes. A sequel is reportedly in the works, reuniting director Mel Gibson with star Jim Caviezel.
Last seen playing the apostle Luke in “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” Caviezel says films based on the Bible typically serve a higher purpose. “I think, inevitably, it will bring people back to reading the scriptures again,” Caviezel says of the faith-based film boom.
Blockbusters like “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, “Courageous” and “I Can Only Imagine” add to the impressive profits from the Christian film industry while also broadening them beyond historical adaptations to genres like fantasy and realistic nonfiction with Christian themes. More recently, “The Star” was a big hit in the animation world.
Scott likens the growing popularity of Christian films to the Christian music industry, which he says began small but now encompasses multiple genres such as gospel, contemporary and rap.
“We’re seeing different types of films now, and the production quality is getting better,” says Scott, whose studio released “Samson” in February. “As the audience supports these films, they will see them improve with better stories and production values.”
The Need for Faith-Based Content
What inspired filmmakers to begin producing Christian films, and why are audiences flocking to see them? A 2015 study by Ohio State University psychologist Brad Bushman found that violence in films has nearly quadrupled since the 1950s. Further, the study revealed that modern PG-13 films such as “The Hunger Games” and “The Avengers” contain more violence than R-rated movies from the 1980s.
The mature content allowed in most present-day PG-13 films seems to create a gap—especially for families with older children or Christians of any age who simply don’t care to watch adult content—with film offerings going straight from animated children’s films to movies with violence or sexual scenes. Those audiences often are doomed to be bored by movies targeted for young kids or be exposed to graphic content, with nothing in between.
Scott says Pure Flix is bridging that gap by producing and distributing films with “no sex and zero or light violence.” In addition to producing eight to 10 original films annually, Pure Flix has a streaming service a la Netflix that only offers family-friendly films for download.
“We’re sharing something the entire family can watch with no one covering their eyes,” he says. “We show things that are fun, entertaining and have great lessons to be learned.” More than 350,000 people in the United States and Canada subscribe to Pure Flix and have access to the approximately 7,000 titles in the studio’s library.