Nearly half of all Americans attend church at least once a week. That’s a lot of potential theatergoers and TV viewers as far as Hollywood is concerned. So, it’s no surprise studios are increasingly targeting the faithful when marketing such commercial fare as “We Bought a Zoo,” “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” and “Soul Surfer.”
But reaching that demo — which is already wary of Hollywood’s cultural influence — can pose a tricky proposition for studio marketers, who might be able to navigate the mainstream media landscape with ease but are lost when it comes to megachurches and the Christian press. Instead they turn to a burgeoning group of outside experts, led by Grace Hill Media’s Jonathan Bock and Motive Entertainment’s Paul Lauer, who are armed with Rolodexes full of pastor and priest contacts.
“On any given weekend, 43% of the country are in church, with two-thirds attending once a month,” says Bock, who worked on campaigns for “The Vow,” “War Horse” and “Act of Valor.”
“When you’re talking about an audience that big, you’re talking a broad spectrum of movie tastes,” Bock says. “Hollywood has a tendency to view Christians in political terms, and the audience is much more than that.”
Rather than creating a one-size-fits-all Christian message for each project, the former Warner Bros. publicist, who has worked on 350 film and TV campaigns since launching Grace Hill Media in 2000, tries to figure out which demo within a demo to target. For an R-rated pic like “Act of Valor,” he wouldn’t dream of approaching James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. But he held nationwide screenings for influential pastors, particularly those with flocks greater than 400 and with AV systems behind the pulpit. His staff of 11 created “Valor”-themed talking points that could be woven into a sermon and accompany high-resolution clips from the film.
For Lauer, who made his mark by masterminding the faith-based efforts for “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Polar Express,” the key is tailoring the campaign to the appropriate target.
“The faith community is a super-niche,” says Lauer, who is doing early outreach on Lionsgate’s ostensible “Passion” prequel, “Mary Mother of Christ,” which begins lensing in August — a film more likely to appeal to Catholics than evangelicals.
“Unlike other demographics, the faith market crosses all other demographics: race, gender, age, etc. But it’s not monolithic. There are sub-niches within, including different denominations. Some are more conservative, some are more liberal. It’s important to identify which messages and which stories will resonate within the separate denominations,” Lauer says.
But the success of Christian-targeted marketing, which has spurred the box office of such films as “The Blind Side” (led by Bock) and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (led by Lauer), comes with an unexpected downside. Dan Merrell, whose grassroots firm Propeller targets the faith-friendly marketplace, says the biggest challenge is that Christian audiences have become more selective.
“Now that so many are entering the faith-based film space, influencers in that market have less time to indulge every screening request and invitation to support the release,” says Merrell, whose credits include “Arthur Christmas.” “In the past, film screenings were 80%-90% full, now they are 60%-70% full.”
Though potential Christian filmgoers appear to be well-serviced, TV remains an area ripe for faith outreach. In fact, Game Show Network kept the mammoth demo’s potential in mind before greenlighting its upcoming quiz show, “The American Bible Challenge,” which is scheduled to bow in the summer.
“This is not ‘religious programming,’?” clarifies GSN exec VP Stephen Croncota, who is working with Grace Hill Media on the project. “But we developed it with a very conscious eye toward knowing that we can tap into this audience. This is an audience that feels they are underserved. And to have a group so passionate, you are always looking for these ‘passionistas’ when you are looking to market a product.”
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