Hollywood courting faith community

There’s good news and bad news for anyone in Hollywood hoping to entice Christian audiences to their next movie.

First the good news: Approximately 58% of Americans qualify as “frequent churchgoers,” attending religious services at least once a month (that’s 128 million adults, plus their kids), and optimistic marketers see no reason why those crowds couldn’t be encouraged to visit the movies just as often.

Now the bad news: With any group that big, no universal strategy exists to influence their entertainment decisions.

“There’s probably a dozen different ways you could segment the faith community,” says Barna Research Group founder George Barna, whose peers call him “the Gallup of the Christian world.” Now, as chairman of Good News Holdings, Barna is applying more than two decades of experience to reaching faith-based auds. “There’s certain things we could say that would really resonate with charismatics that would absolutely infuriate fundamentalists and vice versa. Same thing for Protestants vs. Catholics, evangelicals vs. mainliners and so on.”

Jonathan Bock has made a career of selling Hollywood movies to Christians. Through his company Grace Hill Media, Bock consults with studios on everything from whether to greenlight a questionable religious-themed project to how to bring in the believers for films like “Evan Almighty” and “The Reaping.”

“We do marketing that is running on a parallel path with what the studios already do,” Bock explains. “If they’re having a junket and bringing their critics, we’re bringing ours to the same junket. If they’re doing advance screenings, we’re doing advance screenings targeted to our audience.”

Bock and others in his field work by interacting directly with church pastors, youth ministers, Christian radio hosts and other tastemakers whose opinions resonate with key segments of the Christian community.

On the independent end of the spectrum, “Facing the Giants” earned more than $10 million in theaters last year after Provident Films marketing VP Kris Fuhr helped leverage connections the company had made through its Christian music business. The team spent all summer “seeding the ground” for a grass-roots word-of-mouth campaign by screening the film for pastors and ministry groups in more than 60 cities.

“A lot of it has to do with providing them access and information,” Bock says. “I don’t tell a person how to think; I try to provide the ability for these outlets and leaders to see a film for themselves and draw their own conclusions and tell their constituencies what they think.”

Part of the approach involves phrasing the conversation in religious terms, to the point that some critics have accused such marketers of “retro-fitting” secular entertainment with a faith-friendly theme.

“The reality is the studios are spending millions of dollars to create compelling stories on film that can be used to tell a compelling story related to the gospel,” says Motive Marketing prexy Paul Lauer, who launched his business promoting “The Passion of the Christ.”

“Churches are not in the business necessarily to drive people to movies; they’re in the business to save souls and strengthen their congregations,” explains Fox Faith marketing Jeff Yordi. “A lot of it is based on making sure what you’re sending them are things that they want and are appropriate.”

To help position “Rocky Balboa,” Lauer sent boxing gloves to nearly 5,000 faith leaders, along with a resource DVD familiarizing them with the pic’s faith-relevant themes.

Every campaign is different, but Lauer says the blueprint remains the same: “The strategy starts with the people at the top, the influencers, the channel partners, and it extends through the ranks to moms, who are some of the greatest promoters on the face of the earth.”

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