How Jesus convinced Hollywood to believe
After The Passion of the Christ made more money than anyone dreamed possible -- still the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time in America -- studios frantically tried to corner the faith market by producing movies that enticed churches to buy out theaters. There’s a long history of sword-and-sandal flicks before that, plus occasional apocalyptic movies like A Thief in the Night, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association made a number of solid films a few decades ago that were distributed directly to churches. But 2004 signaled something new, and producers took notice.
A few small movies succeeded with the "faith audience" after Passion of the Christ: Facing the Giants (2006), Fireproof (2008), and Courageous (2011), one of which starred Kirk Cameron, all indie films from the same church-backed production company. Less-explicitly specialized films, like the Narnia movies, The Blind Side (2009), The Book of Eli (2010), Of Gods and Men (2010), and Soul Surfer (2011), attracted sizable crowds of mostly Evangelical Christians. Soon, publicity firms found ways to market every conceivable film with a vaguely inspirational hook to pastors and parishioners, from The Avengers (look at these superheroes sacrificing themselves for one another, just like Jesus!) to The Monuments Men (look at these soldiers sacrificing themselves for one another, just like Jesus!)
Maybe someone in Hollywood read a tweet, or ate some Ezekiel bread, but all at once a wave of specific "faith" releases began to crest. The wave crashed in 2014, which saw Son of God (February), God’s Not Dead and Noah (March), Heaven Is for Real (April), Mom's Night Out (May), Persecuted (July), The Song and Believe Me (September), the Left Behind remake starring Nicolas Cage (October), Saving Christmas (November), and Exodus: Gods and Kings (December). As a Christian film critic, I got calls from reporters all over the place, asking whether I could comment on what the "Year of the Bible Film" was all about. It was a thing.
Those aren't ephemeral numbers: in addition to the incredible box-office hauls of God's Not Dead and Heaven is for Real, several of the films made money (including Mom's Night Out, which grossed $10 million on a $5 million budget, and Left Behind, which grossed $19.7 millon on $15 million). Son of God was a recut version of ratings juggernaut The Bible, which raked in 10-13 million viewers for the History Channel and led to a second series on NBC, A.D. The Bible Continues. And the trend continued in 2015 with Old Fashioned (competing with Fifty Shades of Grey on Valentine’s Day weekend), Do You Believe (March), War Room (August), the unfortunately titled 90 Minutes in Heaven, the thriller Captive (September), and football movie Woodlawn (October). We're barely a quarter of the way into 2016 and have already weathered The Masked Saint, Risen, The Young Messiah, and Miracles From Heaven. This week we get God's Not Dead 2 -- a missed titling opportunity, if ever there was one -- with a Ben-Hur remake and an adaptation of the popular novel Same Kind of Different as Me on the way.