Hollywood’s Come-to-Jesus Moment: Inside the Latest Rise of Faith-Driven Movies

Photo Illustration: William Scalia

Photo Illustration: William Scalia

With little movies like “God’s Not Dead” and “Heaven is for Real” making bank at the box office, years of under-the-radar planning is coming to fruition

Hollywood worships at the altar of the box office, and the success this year of religious themed-movies has led to a sort of come-to-Jesus moment for studios and reporters alike — as well as a rush by big name conservatives such as Glenn Beck and Rick Santorum to get in on the success.

Many marvel and express surprise over the seemingly out-of-nowhere triumph of films like “God’s Not Dead,” while those in the world of faith-driven films are celebrating the culmination of years of planning and work.  TheWrap talked to several industry players — from the producers of the hit movies to the biggest experts in the field — to find out just how these films finally broke out.

The consensus is that the breakout comes largely as a result of technological advances, a few deep pockets, and a solid infrastructure that remained under the radar to most mainstream industry power brokers and observers.

Also read: ‘God’s Not Dead’ Isn’t Going Away, and Neither Are Faith-Based Films

For decades, a sprawling Christian film industry has run parallel to Hollywood. The movies, of varying quality and production value, were mostly shown in churches, on cable TV and sold on VHS and later DVD, minor works that performed well enough among the target demographic but rarely registered among mainstream moviegoers. Websites are stocked with huge libraries of such films, the kind of on-the-nose message movies that lack star power and polished screenplays, let alone proper lighting or locations.

“A lot of what you see out there is Christians making bad films,” Phil Cooke, a producer and best-selling author with a PhD in theology, who works with religious groups and media organizations (including Paramount on “Noah”). “There is a certain group of Christians who are doing ultra low budget, trying desperately to make a film, and they have great intentions or either they don’t have it funded well or they’re not professional enough.”

See photos: 11 of God’s Biggest Hits at the Domestic Box Office

And so, the 90 million Americans who identify themselves as evangelical Christians — “the country’s largest special interest group,” as many in the Christian film industry like to say — have been traditionally underserved; there is only limited appetite for films that are marked by subpar production and story, no matter the message. As a result, the gap in the market remained in place for years, with Christian audiences flocking instead to talk radio and special television networks.

That’s where the rush of technology and financing come into play.

Also read: How ‘God’s Not Dead’ Used Facebook, Pandora to Create a Christian Indie Hit (Exclusive)

106612_1_ftcRussell Wolfe started Pure Flix in 2005 as both a production and distribution company, putting in place a plan to gradually invest more money into his movies as their quality and fiscal return improved. The P&A costs of theatrical releases was largely prohibitive, so they stuck to DVD and streaming services, but their prolific output quickly made them a profitable industry leader.

“Our market, the family market, we feel that there’s few and far between good family movies that are appropriate for all ages, so we want to service that market,” he told TheWrap, “but at the same time, we’ll stick to our roots on other films that are faith affirming.”

Not every movie is a huge seller, but the sheer volume available on their site, as well as places like ChristianMovies.com and even at Wal-Mart, make for a tidy profit. And while they may not please mainstream critics — the works of Candace Cameron Bure and Haylie Duff are unlikely to land in the Criterion Collection, though there may be some cult potential around the Danny Trejo film “The Bill Collector” — they hit the right notes with the right people.

The ability to service that market was helped greatly by the rise of digital technology that has made filmmaking accessible and a much more populist endeavor. Production costs went down, so they could spend more on recognizable actors like Teri Polo, as well as bigger names like Greg Kinnear, who starred in “Heaven is for Real,” which cost Sony’s TriStar Pictures just $12 million overall and has made $75 million since its release in April.

Also read: Paramount Adds Explanatory Note to ‘Noah’ After Pressure by Religious Group

The other huge religious hit of the spring, “God’s Not Dead,” was made for even less — just $2 million — and green lit after extensive research and surveys by Wolfe and his team.

“We surveyed them and asked what does the church need, what kind of message do they need to hear?” Wolfe explained. “We heard several things back, they said marriage and family and money issues and things like that. But one of the things that came back was just to reaffirm with people why they believe what they believe. So much in the media is, when they look at Christians, they go, ‘You’re out there, that’s just blind faith.’ And it’s not blind faith, there’s reasons behind it. I think one of the things that made this movie so successful is that it ended up reaffirming with individuals why they believe what they believe, almost vindicating them in their belief in the face of mainstream criticism.”

There is now an overt feeling in the evangelical community that they are being discriminated for being religious — several court battles over government prayer have rallied them to the cause — and “God’s Not Dead” played into that sentiment, as well.

See photos: 11 Top Grossing Christian-Themed Movies Since 2004

Pure Flix is also behind the PG comedy “Moms’ Night Out,” and just finished a “Turner and Hooch”-style cop-dog movie with Billy Gardell and prolific filmmaker/actor/company partner David A.R. White. Most likely, their next big blockbuster will be a film called “Believe,” which comes out Easter 2015; White told TheWrap that the movie has a similar theme and tone to this year’s big faith-affirming hit.

Elsewhere in the field, several big names have sunk their own cash and reputations into film investments, buoyed by successes like Kirk Cameron’s “Fireproof” and “Courageous,” which made $33 and $34 million, respectively, in 2008 and 2011. “Fireproof” was released by Affirm Films, an evangelical-targeting division of Sony, which has led the mainstream industry in outreach to the segment; the label also released the AnnaSophia Robb-Helen Hunt drama “Soul Surfer,” about surfer Bethany Hamilton, who credited faith for her return to competition after having her arm bitten off by a shark.

Also useful is the rise of the evangelical celebrity. “God’s Not Dead” got help from the cast of “Duck Dynasty,” while B-level actors like Dean Cain (hey, he was Superman) and Kevin Sorbo (the guy was Hercules) can draw a little more press coverage and interest in the films, too. Corbin Bernsen is another 90’s star that works in the genre, now as a writer/director in addition to acting.

Also read: Comedy ‘Moms’ Night Out’ Can’t Fire Up Faith-Based Box Office

Megachurch pastor TD Jakes, who runs his church and its offshoots as very profitable hubs of commerce, produced “Heaven is for Real” with TriStar; he’s also been behind other films like “Jumping the Broom” with Paula Patton and “Black Nativity” with Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker. Those bled into the mainstream, demonstrating that some companies have more flexibility than others.

Always ahead of the curve, Glenn Beck got involved in the industry right before the boom. In fact, he decided to cut out the middle man, to a certain degree, and purchase an entire physical film studio. Late last year, his Radio Mercury Arts purchased a 72,000 square foot complex in Texas where films like “Robocop” and TV shows like “Prison Break” were produced. It’ll serve as a base for The Blaze’s growing TV slate, and also provides Beck a foothold into the film world.

The latest name to get into the field is former Republican senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who took on the role as CEO of EchoLight Studios late last year. The company released a film called “The Christmas Candle” last holiday season, a period piece that marked singer Susan Boyle’s motion picture debut (and co-starred “Les Miserables” star Samantha Barks). It faltered at the mainstream box office, but was a prominent title among its target audience.

The studio is ramping up production this year, with an eye on family-friendly fare and historical tales that demonstrate the power of faith to change the world and the wayward individual.

Also read: Rick Santorum Joins the Movie Business as New CEO of EchoLight Studios

“We don’t want to make cheesy movies; we use the word authentic a lot,” Jeff Sheets, the president of EchoLight, said. “If you weren’t a Christian, I’d want you to watch our movie and say, ‘I may not entirely agree with their worldview, but that was very well done and I kind of get it.’ It’s not like the Christian guy was a big jerk who beat someone over the head with a bible and you think, I hope I don’t meet that guy in an alley.

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“We want to make a movie that, the homosexual who moves across the street from me, if I bring him to a movie, he can see that and go, ‘That’s good art. That’s fantastic. And while it’s different from my worldview, I got something out of that, I learned something I didn’t know before,'” Sheets added.

In particular, EchoLight — and largely every producer with whom TheWrap spoke — emphasized the desire to avoid tackling the sort of issues that Santorum became known for while serving in Washington, including LGBT rights and abortion.

“Like any good story, an antagonist has to have a protagonist, it has to have a climax,” Sheets said. “But we are specifically not going to, or we have not up to this point, focused on a caused-based movie, i.e. abortion or homosexuality, that is not going to be the themes. Because the reality is, while those are hot button, the reality is most people in life, that’s not what they’re dealing with today. They’re dealing with family issues, marital issues, family issues, struggles in their career.”

Also read: ‘Heaven Is for Real’ Review: Even Skeptics Can Find This Tale Humane and Even-Handed

DVD and the home market remains a major part of each of these studios’ plans; Pure Flix anticipates releasing 15-24 titles altogether a year, only two or three of which will be theatrical. But as they increase their theater presence over time, they are looking to utilize the built-in networks of word-of-mouth buzz and pre-sale ticket buyers that carried “Heaven” and “God’s Not Dead” to box office success.

EchoLight, in particular, is creating a church-based distribution system in which they give a new release to participating churches to show for 30 days, with each congregation acting like a paying audience. EchoLight gets 75 percent of the ticket sales, the church gets the other quarter, and DVDs are sold during that initial screening, as well.

While they initially planned on giving the films only to churches with big HD screens, tours around the country revealed that audiences in smaller congregations would be happy to watch on the less advanced in-house systems, as well. Sheets estimates that between 3,000 and 5,000 churches have the video capabilities to show the movies, which means, at maximum output, they could play on more screens than a blockbuster like “The Amazing Spider-Man.” In addition to the ticket sales, EchoLight sees the move as a way to build buzz without having to drop $10 million on P&A costs for each film, crucial savings to a small studio.

See video: Susan Boyle and Rick Santorum Are Finally Teaming Up 

In some cases, though, faith-driven films will get that big spend, thanks to studios’ increased interest in these films. Paramount struggled to market “Noah” to religious audiences at times, but the profit margins of a film like “God’s Not Dead” — it was made for just $2 million — make it an attractive gamble for a company like Freestyle. Similarly, “Heaven is for Real,” which was made for $7 million, was released by Tristar, a division of Sony.

Hollywood began turning its attention to religious audiences upon the monumental success of “The Passion of the Christ,” dipped its toes in the holy water with films like “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Blind Side,” and now, they’ve confirmed the viability of these movies — which should now lead to a deluge of them.

See video: Jon Stewart Slaps Down the Religious Backlash to ‘Noah’

“I don’t think there’s a religious revival happening in Hollywood, but they recognize the power of the box office,” Cooke, who was vocally supportive of “Noah” after meeting with director Darren Aronofsky, said.

Of course, that comes with its own risks.

Kirk Cameron

Aronofsky’s take on the biblical tale of the great flood was not the traditional story of orderly double lines of animals marching onto a boat, which means that the interpretation rankled some more literal-minded religious leaders. Cooke, though, felt the movie was valuable for starting a conversation about the bible among millions of moviegoers, and has begun working with film studios on their outreach and strategy. That makes him one of the crossover advocates in the sector; Sheets, for his part, says that EchoLight will distribute their own films.

“EchoLight seems to be positioning themselves as the anti-Hollywood, trying to be the anti-big studio film,” Cooke said. “And that’s an approach, that’s viable. I just think that Hollywood, whatever you think of the movies they make, they’re really good at making them and they have huge influence out there in the world. And to try to work out a relationship with Hollywood, that’s good. I don’t view Hollywood as the enemy, I view them as a partner trying to make some epic films, and if we can help them do it more effectively, that’s great.”

Also read: ‘Hollywood Torrent': ‘Noah’ Will Cross $100 Million in the US, But Will it Turn a Profit?

Christian viewers, Cooke surmises, are aware that Hollywood films, with their need to hit several demographics, will not maintain total fealty to traditional bible stories and messages — especially the more expensive the film gets. For the most part, the audience is willing to give some wiggle room, but he does recommend consulting experts, as Paramount and MGM did when they tapped Mark Burnett and Roma Downey — producers of the smash hit History Channel series “The Bible” — to produce the new re-imagining of “Ben-Hur.”

The trend of religious TV mini-series is only increasing; Burnett and Downey’s sequel to “The Bible” will air on NBC, while other networks such as CBS and Lifetime are also working on their own faith-driven programming.

“My advice to studios is, and we’ve done this with a number of them, they should work with groups that get that audience,” he offered. “Because most of the people involved in making the films may not have a personal religious conviction either way, and so even though they’re telling that story, it would be helpful to have someone on board who is helping them interpret that story so that the audience will like that. So having an advisor on board who can tell you, ‘Look, this is going to be great, this is maybe getting a little edgy and we’re going to maybe lose viewers interpreting it this way,’ I think that kind of advice is great.”

Pure Flix will continue to increase work with studios, Wolfe said, but it will insist on maintaining creative control of its films. It is a privately held and financed company, and as White pondered, “The pause comes in whether or not, in the expansion of this, do we marry with one of these [Hollywood] entities or do we continue to stay private?”

See video: ‘Noah’ Behind-the-Scenes Preview Mixes Religious Praise With New Footage

“We have to make sure that our message remains pure to what we intended it to be,” Wolfe said. “And when we get to family movies, we need to make sure it’s an engaging story, a fun story, but not doing what certain movies to do to get certain ratings for a film,” he continued, citing a few curse words in “Stuart Little” as the sort of unnecessary distractions from positive family fun.

“The market would like to see the faith-affirming films, but at the same time, those same exact [audiences] love to see just a good heartwarming story or even an action adventure that doesn’t go too far, with nudity or language or things like that,” he said.

The middling returns ($4 million) on Patricia Heaton’s “Moms’ Night Out,” a PG film about four women trying to nab a night of fun and relaxation, suggest that the less overtly religious movies aren’t always such a great bet.

Still, Hollywood is firmly focused on superhero and franchise fare, especially with the growing importance of international markets, but for domestic audiences, tapping into a previously inaccessible market will prove to be too enticing a possibility to pass up. Cooke has faith that his counterparts in the industry are honest with their intentions, and thinks a sort of thaw has come to the previously cool relationship between evangelicals and “liberal” Hollywood; even Glenn Beck is looking to get his hand in the game.

With that much money at stake, both sides have every reason to play nice.