Religious experience

Distribs learning boundaries of faith

Two years after “The Passion of the Christ” fueled $600 million in global B.O., Hollywood is discovering that faith is harder than it looks.

To support the growing genre of faith-based movies, the industry has embraced an ever-growing set of guidelines described by some as the Passion Playbook. Among its edicts: Thou shalt woo the Bible Belt. Court the favor of local pastors. Avoid major media if they might send the wrong message.

That’s what Magnolia Pictures prexy Eamonn Bowles did last month for the docu “Jesus Camp,” a film he hoped would be a hit not just with urban liberal auds but faith-based filmgoers as well.

Gross to date: $594,000.

“We were getting all this attention,” in the Christian community, Bowles says. “And then it was like, ‘bam.’ A switch had flipped.”

Bowles did lots of things right, such as setting up a series of church screenings, hiring faith-based PR expert (and Billy Graham publicist) Larry Ross, and opening in the heartland instead of big cities to let word-of-mouth –and not mass media-driven publicity.

However, it wasn’t enough to overcome the enmity of one peeved pastor. Ted Haggard, head of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., is seen briefly in “Jesus Camp”: He didn’t like the portrayal. When he let that be known, screenings were mysteriously canceled, according to Bowles.

Some suggest viewing the market as a sort of Comic-Con — a market you may never fully understand but in which you must nonetheless participate.

Others predict a mainstreaming of Christian pics within the industry.

“Faith-based movies will soon become like any other genre or segment,” says Picturehouse president Bob Berney, who oversaw the release of “Passion” as head of Newmarket Films. “You’ll have hits and you’ll have misses.”

That’s the driving faith behind Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey, who have launched Temple Hill Prods. in part to do Hollywood movies with Christian themes; they’re the producers behind New Line’s upcoming “The Nativity Story.” New Line will partner with marketing firm Grace Hill Media, known for its church group outreach, for the Dec. 1 release of the Christmas-themed pic.

Or the FoxFaith label, which released its first movies this month and which, while it will concentrate on homevid, handled a small part of the theatrical release for sleeper biblical hit “One Night With the King.”

The Passion Playbook is also inspiring Anonymous Content manager Adam Krentzman to set up a fund that will finance three or four Christian-themed movies per year, each budgeted around $3 million. His ideal projects: “Hit-you-over-the-head, Jesus-loves-you kind of films.”

However, some successful faith-based producers might argue that if you love Jesus’ money, it helps to love Him, too.

The current success story is “One Night With the King,” which has earned $7.7 million since its bow two weeks ago on 900 screens. Gener8Xion producers Stephan Blinn and Matthew Crouch are both Christians, and Crouch’s parents own the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which reaches 75 million homes and gave the pic a promotional push.

It’s key, some distribs say, to have “organic” material — films developed and produced outside the system.

That proved a winning strategy at Samuel Goldwyn Films for “Facing the Giants,” the tale of a high school football team that leans on spirituality (think “Friday Night Lights,” with prayer instead of partying).

Financed entirely by the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., it stars and was directed by its associate pastor, Alex Kendrick, with Goldwyn coming in at a late stage.

“We needed to make sure that the audience knew we were a distribution vehicle for a film they’ve created, rather than us creating a film and telling them to go see it,” says Goldwyn topper Meyer Gottlieb, who on Oct. 27 also released “Conversations With God,” the story of spiritual author Neale Donald Walsch that’s directed by former Hollywood producer Stephen Simon.

For Goldwyn, the strategy has reaped heavenly rewards: Going into its fourth weekend, “Giants” has earned $5.2 million.

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