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Faith Based Moviemaking – Is It Working?

Evan Almighty Movie Poster

The perspective from Fox News on Evan Almighty seems to be that Hollywood just isn’t getting it when it comes to the “faith based” market. After he read the section:

“In its aftermath, once again the chatter from Hollywood is how, despite another earnest and sincere attempt to make a movie for “those people,” the elusive faith-based audience that came out to see the Passion of The Christ has once again failed to turn out en masse for a movie thought to be tailor-made for them. The problem with such an analysis is that it’s not unlike making a movie featuring blackface and wondering why the African-American audience isn’t interested.”

…actor Tom Hillmann dropped me a note to say:

“My thoughts, Phil, as a professional actor, is in order for this to work, you have to have authentic believers on screen! Don’t you think that’s what drew the church to the theatre for “Facing the Giants” even though the acting was less than professional, the faith-based audience KNEW they were the real deal? How much better would that film have been if they had gone with believers who were professional actors? They could have gotten an ultra-low budget SAG Indie contract, ($100/day or even deferred) and hired people who could help tell the story professionally. The faith-based audience would not have been there for “The Passion of the Christ” if Christ had been played by Jim Carrey instead of Jim Caviezel, whose faith and fruits could be authenticated by his past choices in roles and interviews.”

Hollywood is wondering how to get it right. Is this the answer? What do you think?

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30 Comments

  1. I think to some degree "made for Christians" movie making is still in it's infancy stage.
    I somewhat liken it to the late 80's and early 90's when one of the only decent "Christian Rock" Bands was Petra. I was into Metallica and Mega-Death and when I converted I had to settle for Petra. Yikes!

    Maybe things will get better with time. I didn't think Evan Almighty did that poorly. I enjoyed it. But Maybe it's because it's the equivalent of Petra. It's all we got. 🙂

  2. Was Evan really targetted in a faith-based way?  I agree with Tom that authenticity is a big part.  But let's face it, when you look at a film and see Michael Scott from "The Office," you can't really expect much.  I didn't think "Bruce Almighty" was faith-based, just a movie with some Christian themes added to aide in the story-telling process.I think a lot of churches are looking for specific types of films.  It's not about making a movie loosely based on a Bible story.  With Facing the Giants, people heard about a church making a professional film. Faith-based is story driven, and here was a church making headlines because they were saying "No!" to Hollywood and making a quality family film on their own.  I remember people at my church saying "a church our size did this. . . we could do something like this!"If studios really want to hit it big with the faith-based market, they may need to start getting more creative with where they get their stories from and how they go about producing the films.   

  3. The actors killed it for me. If your not going to have a Christian actor at least use Will Ferrell or John Heder-their money..most people I talked to, thought the movie was making fun of God and the Bible..and honestly that was my first impression too. This topic was discussed on this very forum not long ago and one huge thing that kept coming up was that you have to have KEY KNOWN CHRISTIAN people in all the major spots. Basically, you have to have Christians making the film. It's like a boxer making a movie about dance…the dance world will think it's a joke. So let the boxers make boxing movies and the dancers dance movies…

    This might sound unpopular, but I don't think Hollywood should make faith based movies if hollywood is not faithbased. Do what they know…indie is the new mainstream anyway and people have the ability to choose..if you want to make money off welcome these Christian filmmakers into your studios and use them to ensure your hitting the mark. If fact use Christian filmmakers to make your films period…Casting believers is always authentic—I think as long as "Hollywood" is attached to a project people will wonder just how authentic it really is in terms of a faith based project….your dealing with a smart and opinionated audience..

  4. then what do you say about chariots of fire? no Christians writing, directing, or acting in that film. it is about the story, front to back. actors, directors, etc are tools in making the product. I don't want to see dance movies only made by dancers – that is what makes movies so "inside" – let's see good stories that entertain. and these stories aimed at Christians, have to have good theology. that is where Evan breaks down – the theology is wrong, and we as Christians can sense that.

  5. “Chariots” is so long ago, I can’t even remember it to respond to it as an example! 🙂 I’m not an expert by any means, so I could be way off. I’m looking at this from a sterile, marketing perspective and wonder since the objective was to market to the faith-based audience, (Grace Hill Media did an amazing job raising awareness), how much more would they have had to work with if Patty Heaton had been in this, for instance? And a gifted comic from the “Thou Shalt Laugh” series. Yes the loose theology is a problem which could have been eradicated had they screened it early to pastors as the article notes. The question I raise using “Giants” as an example is, could it be that there was authenticity that was sensed by the faith-based audience that created its huge success? I tend to agree with you Ralph, let’s see good stories that entertain. Here, they are telling a story that the faithful are very familiar with and they DID aggressively campaign to buy the faith-based audience, and seemingly fell short. Why? Why did “Giants” succeed financially when story and on-screen talent were below par? Many people of faith had theological issues with “Giants,” too. What ingredient WAS there that worked for the audience and what can those who really know how to make a good picture, learn from its success? TH

  6. chariots was long ago, but christians keep referring to it!

    I disagree that adding Heaton to Evan would add value to the movie. Evan suffers from story and theology issues.

    i disagree that Giants was a financial success. sony bought that opening with a large P&A spend. we should find out what if anything the filmmakers got from sony. giants preached to the choir and the choir showed up. we need to make movies for better reasons that the sympathy vote.

  7. I heard that the kendricks haven't got much if anything from Giants yet…that was from another Christian filmmaker, so I guess we'd have to ask them directly to find out for sure..

  8. First off “Evan almighty” is a great film, it’s a comedy and I did laugh “allot” as did my wife, and there was a really good message I got out of it. Even was talking to God and was telling him “you new all this was going to happen, you had it all figured out and I fought you all along” little moments like that that really blessed us, I do not know what movie you were watching.  I know it may not have had enough bible verses for the church crowd, but here you all go again, pretty much anything Hollywood try’s that is not what we want we chew the up and spit it out, the church is do dived anyway what “church” crowd do they have to hit. I have (7) kids and they try to do things I could tell them they are wrong in what they are doing, how many of them will want to keep trying after I keep telling them “wrong”. Back off Hollywood any of you “Try” to make anything. Chariots of Fire won best picture in 1981. I have the DVD and my young girls love it. And get the message. I think the more we support what is being done maybe they will keep doing more and the films will get better, maybe never to what all Christians want but most will be blessed.

  9. Your right about Giants preaching to the choir, but I doubt the reason some Christians Didn't like Evan was because lack of Bible verses…the Christians are just as sick of that as the non Chrstians..that's a non issue. No one wants a preachy movie thrown at them especially Christians..as they are already saved..Evan is a better movie than any foxfaith offering for sure, but I can totally understand why many Christians did not back the film-from what I heard regionally, most people got upset when they felt "Christian Organizations" were endorsing it…and when it started running ads on major Christian sites..I don't have an answer for why, but I know that when the ads started running on some major Christian websites, that's when some people started getting upset..I really think many people I came into contact with would have gone to the theatre to watch it if it hadn't advertised on their faithful Christian websites…that doesn't make any sense, but it had that effect on quite a few church goers..

  10. I'm concerned about the term "faith based films" in general. By labeling films based on a theme or message in the content then we're marginalized just like the Christian films and Christian musicians who are now placed in the "Christian" or "Religious" sections of bookstores and video stores. I agree that the bottom-line is that we have to be great story tellers telling strong stories and our world view will naturally come out. I don't want my projects to be labled "Faith based" or "Christian" just like my atheist sister doesn't want her work to be labled "atheist." (But both of our world views will come out somewhere, just like anyone's does. Have you read the newspaper lately…) Also, my guess is that Tom Shadyac is cringing that his movie was pigeon-holed for the faith based audience. He was hired to write a sequel to "Bruce Almighty" and this is what came from it.

  11. I think we’re going off topic. The article that I referenced and that I found interesting was about marketing to the faith-based audience not about making faith based films. I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in making faith based films. (I guess the title of this post, Phil, should really be “Faith Based Movie Marketing.”) I found it interesting from a business standpoint, how a film is marketed to the Christian audience. What elements should be there to draw in that demographic. Funny thing though, I did find that my point has actually already been made here on philcooke.com in an article that happens to be by the same smart guy, Mark Joseph! He talks about 10+ things he thinks worked for “The Passion” and that Hollywood executives should follow and are “guaranteed to produce box office magic.” (Isn’t THAT a ballsy statement?) Phil said the article was “fascinating.” Take a look. And note point #5 syncs with what I first mentioned to Phil. TH

  12. Here's a confidential word from a highly placed Hollywood executive about Evan Almighty:

    "You’re over thinking this one. The movie just wasn’t that good. The television campaign just wasn’t that good. The reviews were universally bad. Word of mouth of the people who did see it was excellent, but it’s tough to overcome that “stinker” label in the main stream media. Compare it to Ratatouille – a few weeks ago they were both tracking the same. From what I understand, the exits have been similar. BUT – Ratatouille is good. The reviews are excellent. It might break $50 mil this weekend.

    Almost half the audience for EA was “frequent church goers.” The ads worked. Record-breaking click-thrus. Interest level was high in the Christian community. But the movie was soft and panned by the critics in the MSM. Christians read their papers and watch the morning show reviewers. If they hate it across the board, it dampens interest. Make a better movie, and this thing breaks $200. Make a not so good movie and maybe it limps over 100."

  13. Thanks for indulging my inquisitiveness, Phil! I love “behind-the-scenes” stuff, and always learn something new on your blog. TH

  14. I would like to introduce the idea of one audience influencing another. Is it at all possible that movies with christian themes that get rave reviews from non-christian audiences tend to fall favourable with faith based viewers? I first heard about Passion of the Christ from a estatic non-christian who went to see the movie, he got me all amped up. If one audience does in fact influence another, what does this say about marketing to faith based audiences?

  15. Great case study for years to come and great discussion.  A few additional thoughts:

    1) Authenticity is important.  Whether Christians make the film or not I think people with deep faith can smell what the origional intent of a movie is.  Evan was never about a message.
    2) I was one of the many Christians who didn't see the movie – mostly because it didn't look funny or review well.  Most people like me wouldn't have known about the flawed theology because we didn't see it.  And who (outside of insiders) know what actors or writers are Christian?
    3) Evan would have been hailed as a success if it had a $50 million budget.  The best comedies are usually the cheapest thing in the world.   
    4) Reading these posts only further proves that Christians are a diverse bunch, difficult to figure out, and nearly impossible to mobilize.  My Christian demo is probably not yours.   I want good movie making with powerful story.  Some want overt evangelizing movies.  And clearly some Christians just want family fun.
    5) Doesn't this talk make you feel like a mindless Christian lemming waiting for the right formula?  Same thing with Christian television and music.  Let's produce better, smarter, more meaningful stuff and watch God bless it!
  16. I have been saying this for a while. Hollywood JUST DOESN'T GET IT!!! They think that because they make a movie from a story out of the bible, then tweek it enough to make it mainstream and interesting to the mainstream that people, instead of the target they're going for… Christians, will flock to see it. Not true!

    I also thought they were making fun of God, the bible and our faith with Evan Almighty, but quickly realized this was their attempt to "cash in" on the Christian market. I agree with above comments regarding keeping Hollywood out of the Christian market and let Christians make Christian films.

     I'm a screenwriter/filmmaker and in pre-production on a Christian film. Our hopes with this project is to bring Christian films to a whole new level. Our budget is that of a small Hollywood budget than your typical Christian film budget, which is primarily where Christain films fail. Not being able to afford bigger name actors, or production quality cut because of no money. Even with that said, there are films in the Christian genre that make money and by Hollywood standards, would be considered a blockbuster, considering the budget-film gross.

     Example, "Facing the Giants" budget was a mere $100,000 but grossed $10.2M at the box office, in only 450 theaters, and another $12M, as of March '07, in video. That, in comparrison, would be the same as a $30M Hollywood film grossing $660M. If the film was marketed better and had a wider release, it could have done $100M +  Even as cheezy as the film was, bad acting, a so-so script and an amateur production, it did phenomenal!! Again, showing that Christians/people are hungry for wholesome, family entertainment.

  17. Quick question.
     When a movie like The Passion of the Christ or even a lesser known Christian film is playing in mainstream theatres often churches and other organizations buy out whole showings of the movie then give the tickets to their congregation. How big is the difference between the actual box office sales vs. actual butts in seats?
  18. When I hear that a star warrants 20 million dollars per movie it's because that person puts butts in seats. When I hear that churches buy out whole theatres when Christian films are showing I wonder how big is the difference between the actual box office sales vs. actual butts in seats? Are the numbers a true assessment of how many people went to see the film? It reminds me of when Paul Crouch encouraged Nielsen families to keep their TV set to TBN 24/7 throughout the sweeps period (It was about 10 years ago). What are the true numbers?
  19. In my experience, when churches buy block seats, they generally fill the theater with people. In fact, in most cases that I've been part of, they actually sell MORE tickets because people tend to bring friends. I don't think there's much if any discrepancy at all. From what I've seen, theaters love doing it.  In fact, truth be told, if churches had any idea of the impact they could have on the product Hollywood creates by buying huge numbers of block tickets for specific movies, there would be a run on the box office by churches…

  20. I’m adding a reply here to insert some late comments to Ralph’s “Chariots” line of the discussion.  I’ll try to keep it short… actually I won’t.  Forgive me, but I feel compelled to put things into perspective with a little (okay, not a little) story to remind you of some "ancient" history from my point of view:


     

     

    1981Ah, what a year in my life!  In the early summer I moved back to LA with my family, found a new church, and was preparing to enter high school.  Movies meant everything to me and I was now living again in the movie capital!  The adults in my new church were still discussing whether it was okay to see “The Empire Strikes Back” because of the occult elements (not knowing – a year later – there would be a bigger uproar, condemning anyone that went to see that movie about a “demon”: “E.T.”).  I quickly met and hung out with a lot of church friends my age and, of course, went to see movies!  I nearly ignored (just saw once) “Clash of the Titans” and Disney’s “Fox and the Hound.”  No, the movie us “young people” saw EVERY Friday night was “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  I must have seen it over two dozen times that year (this was when movies could be in a theater for a year and right before expensive VHS/BETAs could only be rented).  I remember John Williams’ music seemed so loud and nearly an equal level to the dialogue/snakes – and I loved it!  The only reason the church adults weren’t casting demons out of us [tongue in cheek] the next Sunday was that all the scenes they saw and all the promotions on TV were showing the LIVING God of the Ark of the Covenant manifesting Himself and taking out the bad guys!  Actually, it was more like the death angels from the Passover (that gave me chills every time) but they didn’t know that.

     


     

         A couple months later, on October 9th (my birthday), a little movie came out that set the church abuzz: “Chariots of Fire.”  Before I saw the movie I remember (along with the LA churches) seeing over and over promoted on TV and in theatres, the scene with Eric Liddell running, throwing his head back, while we hear him saying: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.  [Vangelis music swells!]  It was that one scene (which is completely fictional – no one cared) that had churches renting theaters for something other than a Billy Graham film.  This was when “society” and “media” were starting to openly take risks (“Soap” was just ending a four year run after introducing LOUDLY the first television “GAY” comedic character).  When we went to see “Chariots” the first time – duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh [think Vangelis music] – we loved it!  And I hated synthesizer music!  But we bought the album, anyway, and listened to it constantly.  I remember that moment in the movie, we were in a state of shock when, after one of the track (running) races, Eric Liddell PREACHES the Gospel and salvation!  I think it was this one scene alone that had the ancestors of the Passion-goers returning over and over bringing their unsaved friends, loved ones, and – heck – anyone in a coffee shop that said they hadn’t seen the movie (“Hey, there’s a showing in 20 minutes.  Let’s go!”).  Which wasn’t a problem since the movie was in theaters for over a year and was re-released after it won the Academy Awards.  Yes, not since the 50’s, the church was watching the “secular” Academy Awards and rooting for a movie called “Chariots of Fire” – God’s movie.  I actually felt inspired to write words to the main Vangelis melody and several times, for months, my church requested me to sing it, along with my talented piano accompanying friend, Tim Buckler (yeah-yeah, a little copyright infringement but we were young and stupid then).  From this we were asked by our pastor to join him and sing during his summer meetings in two states.  All of this happened, in my life, because of the impact of a single movie. 


     

    2007I’ve been in Tulsa and working in television for over 20 years.  It’s been three years since the “Passion of the Christ” came out and the church had a powerful and, for the first time, an R rated movie to rejoice over (Christians in 1981 would of thought we were crazy!).  Churches had rented out theaters and Mel had been interviewed on TV defending his and our faith.  But now, because of a single movie, “The Da Vinci Code,” most of 2006 and the beginning of 2007 has felt like a war of ideas between the church and the secular (sacred? feminine-ists).  Could it be the next generation of the “God is dead” movement? The “goddess is alive” movement?  I just finished reading the novel and watching the movie (for research) and can now understand then what the cast and Ron Howard were trying to sell in interviews: that the movie tried to be less of a threat to the faith community.  It is, in fact, a failed attempt to add/infuse faith into what is a carnal godless novel.  I realize many Christians avoided going to see this movie because of all the response of Christian leaders.  But the reason my Christian friends and I didn’t see it was because we kept seeing scenes and promotions that showed priests as violent bad guys and shots of churches and crosses with the line: “Witness the biggest cover-up in human history.”  Yes, we were more interested in the return of Superman and relating spiritual warfare to a great movie “300.”  All in IMAX – gotta love it!

     


     

         Now comes summer and another Faith-type movie “Evan Almighty.”  I enjoyed the poignant “Bruce Almighty” but when my Christian friends and I saw the scenes and promotions for “Evan,” they focused on “The Office” comedian Steve Carell which unfortunately made it look like they were making a mockery of the Biblical Noah and his Ark with lines like: “The weirdo with a beardo.” Plus, ending with what looks like Evan (Noah) at odds with God screaming: “Is it too much to ask for
    a little precipitation?
      I’ll, more than likely, catch it on cable.  I think “Evan” would have had better response from the Faith community if they had promoted and shown some scenes of the touching moments with God (mentioned in a prior response) instead of “Noah at The Office.”  By promoting it based on Carell’s fame, the producers of the film found out he wasn’t as popular as they thought.

     


     

    CONCLUSION – Hollywood/We needs to learn the lesson of “Chariots of Fire.”  It wasn’t a “Christian” film and had no “Christian” actors (as Ralph and others have discussed).  The “Chariot” producers could have focused their promotion on Harold Abrahams (the other main character) and the more “carnal” parts of the movie. But, instead, their promotion focused on the jubilation of the sport and showed scenes highlighting Eric Liddell that inspired everyone including Christians and churches to go see it (and I believe kept the Ladd Company from going bankrupt).  Then, once they saw it and were amazed by it’s positive message they kept coming back with their friends.

         Sorry again for the length.  Hope you find it worth the bits.

  21. Hollywood, in my observation from the lunatic fringe, doesn't know how to make ANY "ghetto" films well – they don't target Evangelical Christians well (the subset of Christianity we're actually talking about, right?), but they don't know how to target the mythically monolithic "Black" audience well either … nor the "Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgendered" community … the Latino market evades them, as does the Asian market … I think they even have a hard time reaching the "Progressive Left" market very well outside of the Michael Moore juggernaut … and, frankly, the economics are that they don't really need to do ghetto films.  For every "breakout" like "Passion" or "Facing the Giants" (to go to two extreme ends of the scale) there are dozens of films of "faith" that flop.  It seems to me like Hollywood has got it's formula down (see Transformers for a good example) and while they will dabble in ghetto films if they sniff a quick buck, there's no reason for them to take the chances involved in stepping outside what they do well and what drives the coffers – pablum event movies marketed on a mass scale.  (Okay, so I'm posting this dead middle of the Summer Blockbuster Season, so my view may be a bit jaundiced.)    Cheers, …. Calix

  22. Many of you have made some great remarks and covered so many aspects that I wasn’t even sure there was anything else to talk about on this post. I don’t know what the “right” answer is, but it seems to be one that is multi-faceted. “Faith Based” Moviemaking – Is it working? Technically all movies are faith based because every storyteller places their faith in something (wether Christ or something else) and some aspect of their belief comes out through the story they tell. So yes, in this sense faith based moviemaking works. In the other sense (specifically Christian movies), it works well… but not consistently. However,there will always be people who like what you do – and people who don’t – people who love a movie and people who hate it. When I think of visual storytellers like Lucas, Spielburg, the Wachowski brothers, Gibson, Washington, P. Jackson, Lee, Lewis and others I see a common thread… they all genuinely tell the stories that they want to see. And because they tell stories they genuinely want to see – they pour their heart and soul into the telling so that the story becomes the best that it can be – which translates into moving epics that capture our hearts and minds on many different levels. What is evident to me is that movies made for the love of the story and not just Box Office success generally do better – if not always in numbers… than at least in impact. So as visual storytellers let us share stories that truly impact us instead of only trying to tell stories specifically to cater to others. We cannot deny the beliefs with which we breathe.

    Allen Paul Weaver III
    author, Transition: Breaking Through the Barriers
    http://www.allenpaulweaveriii.com

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