Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What Movies Do Christians Want? Part II - The Past 10 Years

In Part I of the series we opened up the conversation based on an Entertainment Weekly office discussing how films studios are searching for the films that Christians in want.

The fact is, this phenomenon of "Christian films" really didn't begin with any sort of big screen presence until 10 years ago.

One of the first films to hit the big screen was the Omega Code. Some in the Christian community were excited about this film because it was an action/spy style film "big name stars" Michael York and Casper Van Diem and a bigger budget than similar projects had before. Yet despite all it's horrible reviews, and really just a muddled and horrible film, it still was bizarrely profitable (7.6 million dollar budget 12.6 million dollars in the theaters). In fact, this horrible film even got a sequel (Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 in 2001).

Yet despite these films had moderate success for their low budgets the challenge really seems in what is their function. The Omega Code's muddled plots with biblical references and concepts, really seemed like it had the hopes of capturing the type of crowd that would watch movies like Mission: Impossible, and yet the Mission: Impossible crowd didn't gravitate towards this movie.

The earliest Christian movies didn't seem to draw a non-Christian audience, but they're broad limited marketing seemed focused on trying to capture a secular audience. Yet, these films probably failed in this aim.

Another film around this time with even less success than Omega Code was the 2001 film Extreme Days which tried to create a romantic-comedy-extreme-sports-road-trip film with a Christian twist. (Pictured left is Ryan Browning and Cassidy Rae from Extreme Days). The motivation behind this film truly seemed like it was focused on capturing the MTV audience, and the reality was, for various reasons up for debate, this movie failed in it's goal with a box office that barely topped a $1 million dollar gross.

In trying to be accessible to vast audiences, these films generally fell flat. Low reviews, low box office grosses, and only relative successes.

Another film that had the chance to break in to the "history of big screen Christian flicks" was a big screen role for the Veggie Tales with the film Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie. Again, a profit was made with a $25 million box office pull with $14 million budget.

Yet when studios realized with Passion of the Christ that there was a Christian film audience, bigger studios began doing the leg work for the "Christian film scene" with their own films, like The Nativity Story or Evan Almighty.

Previously Christians were trying to make films for vast audiences, and now Studios were trying to make films for Christians.

I remember when Evan Almighty was coming out, Universal Studios was pushing Christian audiences hard to see the film with advertisements mailed out to churches, and sponsorships of Christian concert events. Whether they captured the Christian audience with these tactics, it's hard to tell, but it's hard to gauge whether the $200 million dollar budget film staring Steve Carell.

Evan Almighty grossed $173 million in the theaters and was successful, although I imagine many Christian audiences didn't rush to theaters because there wasn't any "Christian purpose" behind the film and to the ultra-conservative Christian viewer this liberal and comedic story of God's wrath might not have been exactly what captured the church pulpits.

Yet, this passion for trying to capture the Church audience opened up a wider opportunities for films that were more Christian.

Sherwood Pictures, a studio out of Georgia's Sherwood Baptist Church, was in the film game as early as 2003 with there first film Fly Wheel (with it's widest release only showing at 3 theaters in Georgia), but by the time they made their second film Facing The Giants, the scene had changed.

Facing The Giants really is one of the biggest success stories, it's $100,000 budget was multiplied to $10 million dollar's in the box office.

Sherwood Pictures followed this up with their third film the 2008 release Fireproof. Fireproof in it's widest release had 905 theaters and consistently stayed in the top 10 box office grosses after it was released. It ended up grossing over $33 million dollars, with a half million dollar budget.

I think, by an large, these are the first films that have captured a Christian audiences. Maybe the gross is not above the 100 million dollar gross line, but it opens up a field for Christian film makers to make Christian films, and they're winning over an audience that is passionate about contemporary Christian films.

In just a short period of time this unique sub genre of films has popped up and not even counting the post-theater gross, these films have made money, and when it comes to putting movies on the big screens studios and theaters are interested in films that will make money. Yet the sub-genre is still young and the people behind the decisions are still trying to figure out what it means to make films by or marketed to Christians.


Loren Eaton said...

I guess I'm a glutton for punishment, especially after seeing the Anonymous comment below, but here goes: The issue with the Sherwood Films' stable seems to be that they strongly develop one part of storytelling (theme) while giving short shrift to the rest (plot, character, setting). We need strong messages in our narratives, but we also need rounded characters, engaging plots and intriguing settings.

Okay, let fly with the arrows.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I really hate the term "Christian Movies." I think that it puts a pressure on a film that it cannot uphold...even for some of the same reaons that I Loren mentions above. I think that there is a long way to go in cultivating excellence with regards to movie that promote a Biblical message.

I give total props to Sherwood Baptist Church for delving in and spurring on creativity and telling the story of Christ's love and redemption through film.

Karen said...

When you put it that way there aren't that many examples to go by. Good series!