“Passion of the Christ” became a box office phenomenon in 2004, earning $370.8 million domestically by pitching its account of the crucifixion directly to churches and ministries.
Though no religious-themed film has come close to matching its success, Hollywood’s fixation on faith-based films has only intensified in the ensuing decade, with mixed results. For every low-budget breakout such as “War Room,” there’s a costly flop along the lines of “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Having the elements align can sometimes require something just short of a miracle.
“People underestimate not just about how much the core faith-based community, but also the public at large, wants movies that can inspire and uplift them,” said Devon Frankin, a producer on “Miracles from Heaven” and an ordained minister.
Despite the challenges, studios show no sign of abandoning their quest for religious-themed hits. This year has already brought about “Risen,” a detective story about the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion that performed well at the box office, and “The Young Messiah,” an account of Jesus’ early days that is struggling. “Miracles From Heaven,” a drama about a young girl’s astounding medical recovery, debuted Wednesday to a solid $1.9 million and could play well through the Easter holiday, and “God’s Not Dead 2,” a sequel to the 2014 low-budget breakout, opens on April 1. This summer brings “Ben-Hur,” a sprawling epic that MGM and Paramount hope will recapture the chariot racing glory of the Oscar-winning 1959 film.
“Success begets success,” said Rich Peluso, senior VP of Sony’s Affirm Films, the label behind “Miracles From Heaven” and “War Room.” “We’re seeing forward movement in the craft and storytelling of these films, and that’s attracting stronger talent and visionary directors.”
Faith-based films used to be discount affairs, featuring fourth-string actors along the lines of Kirk Cameron or Kevin Sorbo. That’s changing. Those involved in the business say they’ve noticed a real spike in production values — “Miracles From Heaven” features Jennifer Garner and Queen Latifah, “Heaven Is for Real” starred Greg Kinnear, “Noah” and “Exodus” were headlined by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, and no expense has been spared on “Ben-Hur,” which stars Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston, is directed by Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”) and painstakingly re-creates the Imperial Roman era.
“The ones that have star power seem to do better,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with ComScore. “Having higher profile actors who are known for being in secular movies tends to give them a boost.”
Many of the filmmakers involved with these projects emphasize that they are primarily interested in telling a good story. The religious message is integral, but secondary to the drama on screen, they argue.
“My hope is that people go in, have a good cry, and walk out with a renewed sense of life and of the joy of living,” said Patricia Riggen, director of “Miracles From Heaven.” “I didn’t try to make it about a religious agenda. I wanted it to be inclusive of all faiths and speak to non-believers as well.”
Having one of these films work requires extensive grassroots outreach. Studios take pains to enlist leading ministries such as Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston and Sherwood Baptist, a megachurch in Atlanta, providing them with materials and suggestions for ways that the themes of the movies can resonate with their sermons. They also screen the pictures extensively in order to build word of mouth.
“It’s laborious, but it can pay off,” said Jim Orr, distribution chief at Focus, the studio behind “The Young Messiah.”
Orr noted that faith-based films can be slow burns. They can take a while to get started, but as a movie gets recommended, it can build steam over a period of weeks.
Members of the religious community are pleased that after ignoring them, studios are showing a greater interest in providing movies that reflect their spiritual beliefs and values. The only issue is one of timing. With an eye toward the Easter holiday, “Risen,” “The Young Messiah,” “Miracles From Heaven” and “God’s Not Dead 2” all land within weeks of one another. That may lead to some cannibalization.
“There’s a whole lot to see out there and that’s going to dilute the market,” said Chris Stone, founder of the consumer advocacy group Faith Driven Consumer. “Just like everybody else, I have demands on my time. None of us can go to the movies but so many times in a specific window.”