Christian push pays off for 'Letters,' 'Life'

The solid opening weekend performance of Vivendi’s “Letters to God” was a testament to the continuing B.O. might of Christian auds.

While the pic’s debut of $1.1 million wasn’t as high as the $1.5 million opening weekend for Samuel Goldwyn’s “To Save a Life” in January, it was still enough to land it in the top 10 in a slightly flat post-Easter weekend.

The distribs of both pics rely on grassroots marketing strategies and targeted advertising to recruit an aud that “typically doesn’t trust Hollywood,” according to Samuel Goldwyn prexy/CEO Meyer Gottlieb, who said it’s a “dramatically different” demo.

“You don’t want to misrepresent a film, especially with a faith-based audience,” Gottlieb added. “They have to be convinced that you’re delivering the real deal.”

Like most niche pics, Gottlieb said strong word-of-mouth reps a key element for the faith-based pics, with the most influential recommendations coming from the pulpit.

Goldwyn, which distribbed “Fireproof” (2008) and “Facing the Giants” (2006), mounted a grassroots marketing scheme for “Life” directed at churches and religious leaders.

Likewise, Mark Kristol, Vivendi’s exec VP of theatrical marketing and distribution, said the distrib began screening “Letters” in early January for discussion in pamphlets and church services. Vivendi also ran TV spots on such femme-driven nets as the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime.

“Letters,” about a young boy with cancer, debuted on 897 screens, and will maintain a steady screen count in coming weeks.

“Life” tells the story of high-school basketball star who befriends school loners after a life-changing experience. Pic has since cumed $3.8 million domestically.

Gottlieb said some of the most successful faith-based films tackle contemporary issues.

Both films saw stellar performances in smaller markets with a higher concentration of religious moviegoers, including Charlotte, N.C., and Columbus, Ohio. Tracking was strongest among families and females.

Hollywood majors have started to tap into the Christian demo. Warner Bros.’ boffo femme-driven pic, “The Blind Side,” which cumed $255.8 million, saw a huge bump from observant filmgoers, and was heavily promoted to churches across the country through Grace Hill Media, a faith-based marketing and PR firm.

Kristol said faith-based films typically cost less to distribute, benefiting from religious and community leaders’ recommendations, and can see healthy runs. “Fireproof” became one of the highest-grossing indie films in 2008, cuming $33.5 million.

According to the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 78.4% of polled adults in the U.S. identify themselves as Christian, with 4.7% repping other religions and 16.1% unaffiliated.

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