This weekend, "Miracles From Heaven," the latest in a string of faith-based films appealing to Christian moviegoers, posted a solid $15 million opening, demonstrating the staying power of religious-themed movies in the supposedly secular world of Hollywood.
With a budget of just $13 million, the Jennifer Garner film, which recreates a memoir about a young girl fighting a debilitating disease, is already in the black. It boasts an A+ CinemaScore from audiences, which means it connected with its target viewers, an audience that was 65 percent female and 75 percent over the age of 25, according to Box Office Guru.
Sony, the studio behind the film, is already crowing about the film's opening weekend performance, which ranks fourth all-time for a faith-based film. "'Miracles From Heaven' has become a must-see picture that has clearly expanded beyond audiences of faith to become a mainstream hit with a rare and coveted A+ CinemaScore," the studio said in a press release on Monday. "With such enthusiastic mainstream support, the film's trajectory has already taken off and will continue to build through the Easter holiday."
Sony has released two other religious-themed films that found tremendous success, "Heaven Is for Real" ($91 million gross) and "War Room" ($67 million). And this is just the tip of the iceberg in a genre that has grown in stature in the last few years, all while conservatives continue to launch attacks on Hollywood as a purveyor of sordid social values.
There have been hundreds of faith-based films in the last 30-plus years, but in the last two years alone, they have begun to be more ubiquitous and continue to over-perform commercially. Loria argues that studios are increasingly embracing the genre because the films are cheaper to produce and the audiences reliably turn out. And while these films may not get the critical appreciation that films like "The Witch" or "Anomalisa" have received, audiences are embracing them.
The films themselves are buttressed increasingly by the presence of mainstream, recognizable stars and conventional narratives that don't wield their Christian themes in a controversial way. They also have the distinct advantage of word-of-mouth grassroots marketing campaigns. These are films that a pastor or fellow parishioner might be talking about at service on Sunday after seeing them on a Friday or Saturday, and the themes the films touch on could be relevant to churchgoers, too.
While this semi-underground movement has attracted some press, the hype machines behind these films pale in comparison to most modern blockbusters, which makes their financial performance that much more compelling. While these films may not have much pull in traditional media markets, they clearly have gained a foothold in the public's consciousness.
As Tambay A. Obenson of Shadow and Act points out, "With the box office success of recent films like 'Heaven Is for Real' and TV ratings hits like 'The Bible Series,' 'Son of God' and 'AD,' it's probably a very good time for filmmakers/content creators with 'faith-based' projects primed for the big or small screens."
Perhaps the godfather of the genre was Mel Gibson's infamous "The Passion of the Christ," which polarized some audiences but became an enormous sensation in 2004 despite its brutal depiction of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and nearly all-Aramaic dialogue. Big-budget, Bible-based Hollywood productions like "Noah" and "Exodus: Gods and Kings" have come in its wake, but Loria suggests that Gibson's film was more of an outlier.
"It was not conventional in any way. The movies we're seeing I don't think are going for that. They are starkly different even if they're going for that," he said. Still, he conceded, "'The Passion of the Christ' opened the door, in terms of finding an audience."
Why are presumably Christian audiences turning out in droves for these films? Perhaps due to the perception that most Hollywood products are not for them.
"I think that the impression has always existed that Hollywood is morally bankrupt and out of touch," Loria said. "But the film industry has always shown a commitment to making films that aren't going to rock the boat too much."
It's true that in Hollywood's golden age, Biblical epics were just as common as westerns and screwball comedies. These very kind of religious extravaganzas are parodied in the new George Clooney film "Hail, Caesar," but even if some of those movies feel dated today, titles like "The Ten Commandments," "The Robe," "Ben-Hur," "Quo Vadis" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told" were hugely profitable and popular.
Those films fell out of favor by the late 1960s, when the counter-culture was all the rage, but now as studios are looking for safer bets amid an era of bloated budgets and risky productions, we may see even more mid-range, targeted faith-based films.
"The film industry really just reacts to where audiences are going," Loria said.