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Hollywood’s Growing Faith in Christian Movies

'Heaven Is For Real' tries to capture booming business of religious films

Sony’s Christian drama “Heaven Is for Real,” which opens Wednesday, is the latest offering in a year with an uncommonly large slate of religious-themed wide releases.

Although there’s long been a robust DVD market and numerous indie releases, more major studios have been taking a leap of faith and embarking on extensive marketing missions this year. It’s only fitting that the senior production exec for “Heaven Is for Real,” DeVon Franklin, is an ordained minister and one of the film’s producers, T.D. Jakes, is a bishop. Jakes has teamed up with “Alice in Wonderland” producer Joe Roth for the project.

“My hope is that it’s going to appeal to the same demographic of the book, which was in the mainstream,” said Franklin, the author of spiritual success book “Produced by Faith.”

“But at the same time,” he adds, “(the story) really had a strong faith-based following.”

Franklin oversaw production for the drama, which TriStar Pictures will release in 2,500 locations Wednesday, getting an early start before Easter Sunday. The pic is co-written and directed by Randall Wallace and stars Greg Kinnear.

Sony’s grassroots marketing campaign for “Heaven Is for Real” seeks to mirror the success of Todd Burpo’s 2010 global bestseller of the same name, which not only had a religious core, but also mass appeal.

The account of Burpo’s then-4-year-old son’s near-death experience has sold more than 10 million copies and recently climbed back on top of the New York Times’ paperback nonfiction bestseller list.

Although “Heaven Is for Real” is following the lead of recent faith-based surprise hits “God’s Not Dead” and “Son of God,” Franklin, senior VP of production at Columbia Pictures, revealed it’s also taking a page from “Noah’s” playbook with its broad promotional campaign that focuses less on the two coasts.

“The success of those films just proves that the strategy is the right strategy,” he said. “It only gives us more encouragement and more momentum, but it didn’t change the game plan at all.”

Franklin, who delivers sermons throughout the nation around three weekends a month, hasn’t preached about the film, but he recently hit the road with Jakes to help promote it through advance screenings and talks with church leaders. This included screenings at the 2014 Pastors & Leaders conference in Orlando, Fla., Franklin’s West Hollywood church One Church Intl. and Virginia’s interdenominational Christian college Regent U. The previous two events each attracted 1,000 people.

“Being able to be in front on an audience and talk about helping them uplift them with their faith and what they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis and to have a movie in the marketplace that can do the same thing really (works) hand in hand,” Franklin said.

Wallace (“Braveheart’s” screenwriter), who left the seminary to write music, joined in on the promotional tour during a stop in Mississippi. The studio has also distributed free movie passes throughout Southern states.

Franklin said Sony went after the core audience for the book and reached out to ministries all across the country.

“Bishop T.D. Jakes, the producer on the movie, his ministry and his support of the film have been critical,” he said. “Todd Burpo … is a minister so we’ve been able to tap into his outreach and his database. We have absolutely made sure that this movie had the support of anyone in the religious community that already was a fan of the book or already knew of the film.”

A small division of Sony also released the religious documentary “Unstoppable” last year with host Kirk Cameron. The former “Growing Pains” actor is an active evangelical. A one-night screening in late September grossed almost $2 million on 1,050 screens.

Like Jakes, who is the chief pastor of American megachurch the Potter’s House, producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey aggressively pushed Fox’s “Son of God” – based on their five-part miniseries “The Bible” – to open in late February to a solid $25.6 million and to gross $59 million Stateside to date.

The husband-and-wife duo targeted the faith-based community by reaching out to Christian and Jewish institutions. Church groups ultimately bought tickets in bulk to organize group outings and theater take-overs. In fact, Colorado’s Compassion International purchased tickets for churches in 40 cities across the country.

Unlike “Heaven Is for Real” and “Son of God,” Russell Crowe’s biblical epic “Noah” (playing in only 1,000 more theaters than “Heaven”) was marketed as a blockbuster. Although Paramount reached out to religious groups and the pope, its promotional campaign also included a Super Bowl spot. Crowe’s world press tour for the film included stops in England to meet with the archbishop of Canterbury, Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer and the Vatican.

Darren Aronofsky’s drama opened to an impressive $43.7 million and has earned $247 million worldwide ($85 million Stateside), despite generating controversy among Christians in its deviation from biblical source material.

Hollywood’s last religious release, Freestyle Releasing’s “God’s Not Dead,” opened to $9 million at only 780 locations and has grown to $40.9 million domestically (currently playing in 1860 theaters). The hearty box office haul is partly thanks to direct marketing to churches and religious groups, which resulted in heavy group pre-sales. The movie placed an impressive third in the Friday box office when it hit theaters late last month.

Even politicians are jumping on the religious movie bandwagon. Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s Christian film studio EchoLight Studios announced on Monday that it will distribute films in churches instead of theaters. EchoLight Cinemas will launch four movies (one per quarter), with the first, “One Generation Away,” premiering in September.

Franklin hopes that this slew of successes will spark consistent interest from movie studios as faith-based audiences are still underserved.

“The audience is saying and consistently saying this year that ‘we want more movies like this, we want more movies that are faith-affirming, that are life-affirming, that are uplifting, that are inspirational, that we can take our whole family to’ so that is what is really, really exciting is the frequency and the voracity in which the audience is responding to so far the offerings they’ve had this year,” Franklin said.

One more major religious movie, “Exodus,” Ridley Scott’s Moses pic starring Christian Bale, will be released this year. It hits theaters right before Christmas.

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