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Spreading the Word

9 Mar, 2005 By: Brendan Howard

Big Idea's Duke and the Great Pie War.

The Passion of the Christ put the spotlight on the voracious entertainment appetite of the religious market.

In a country where almost 77 percent of citizens self-identify as Christians — according to a 2001 study of 50,000 Americans by the Graduate School of The City University of New York — should it have been a surprise that Passion was a runaway hit?

And it's not just Christian topics interesting Americans, but other religious and spiritual themes — from the meditation and relaxation philosophy of yoga and New Age titles, to drama and comedy with spiritual overtones.

Naturally, home video suppliers are hoping to feed the growing interest in life's big questions.

Reaching the Religious
So, how do suppliers reach religious and spiritual audiences?

Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment's ads to Christian audiences are tailored to them, according to director of marketing, Jeff Yordy.

“How we position a film to a Christian consumer is very different than a secular one,” Yordy said. “For the Christian audience, you talk more about the message and the values and how it supports their faith and beliefs. You make sure to reference Christian reviews and Christian leaders.

“On the secular side, you talk more about entertainment.”Thanks to the grassroots marketing work for The Passion of the Christ, which built theatrical and home video buzz for the movie in churches, Fox has “one of the largest databases of Christian consumers in the United States,” according to Yordy.

To reach Christian consumers, Fox leans less heavily on ads and more on direct mail to churches and Christians' homes. It'll employ that strategy in the fall, when it releases a new version of The Passion of the Christ, “recut to reach a broader audience,” according to Yordy.

While not a Christian title, Fox's What the Bleep Do We Know!? can use a similar strategy.

“On What the Bleep, the direct-mail budget is bigger than the media buy, because I have a database of a couple million people who subscribe to New Age magazines,” Yordy said. “That's a lot more effective than trying to run 30-second spots on TV.”

In releasing a new, shorter version of the word-for-word dramatization of the Bible's Book of Joan, Buena Vista Home Entertainment (BVHE) will be seeking Christian viewers.

“We're reaching out to the faith-based community for endorsements from people who are influential there,” said Lori McPherson, BVHE's VP of brand marketing. “We [also] reach those people through Christian radio, Web sites [and other venues].”

That's where Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is advertising its bevy of re-releases from Cloud Ten Pictures, including the “Left Behind” films.

“We do a lot of grassroots marketing, a lot of PR to that core group of followers,” said Suzanne White, Sony's VP of family catalog marketing. “There's a lot you can do through targeted media through Christian radio and newspapers.”

For Rameses: Wrath of God or Man?, a documentary that explores whether the pharaoh died by men's hands or God and appeals to religious viewers, Sony Pictures even delved into an additional niche. It put ads for the title into the publications Biblical Archaeology Review and Archaeology Odyssey.

Monterey Media's release of Indigo, about children with special powers, appealed to members of “new thought” churches through Internet mailings and big endorsements from Deepak Chopra and the makers of the philosophical jaunt What the Bleep Do We Know!?

Others paint a broader brush.

“We don't only position these as religious programming,” said Paramount Home Entertainment head of publicity, Martin Blythe, about the studio's “Touched by an Angel,” “Joan of Arcadia” and “7th Heaven” TV boxed sets. “They also have a broader market appeal.”

Where Are Spiritual Consumers?
Suppliers find yoga lovers in yoga studios. They find New Age believers in New Age stores and “new thought” churches. And suppliers can find a lot of Christians in Christian bookstores.

Greg Fritz, VP of marketing for “VeggieTales” maker Big Idea, said retail copy depth and breadth can be the stores' biggest bonus.

“[Christian bookstores] carry the entire ‘VeggieTales' catalog,” Fritz said. “It's the norm to have four linear feet, often eight to 12. That's where we launched the product line. It was there four to five years before it hit the retail market.”

The stores themselves do grassroots marketing to support the series of animated tales with biblical morals. According to Fritz, they give special offers to mothers of preschoolers and pastors, and Big Idea provides retailers with “turnkey promotional” packages.

“But they have to bring the manpower to it,” Fritz said.

Big Idea also has more than 3,000 “ambassadors,” people who believe in the company's products. To publicize new releases, they visit churches, day care centers, preschools and grocery stores, handing out coupons and putting up posters.

Venues also put on street-date events to promote the latest “VeggieTales” videos. For instance, the March 8 release of Duke and the Great Pie War will premiere in 370 venues, a third of which are theaters, a third churches and a third retail stores. Theatrical openings coordinate with the video street date. Tickets are $2 to $3 apiece.

“Retailers benefit if they go to that event and set up cash registers [to sell the video],” Fritz said.

Sometimes Big Idea will even give its more than 2,000 participating churches the videos two or three weeks early to drum up business.

“People come out of the churches, and it's hundreds of thousands of people who go to the store of their choice to buy the product,” Fritz said.

Monterey Media used a similar strategy for its “spiritual” family film, Indigo, in which the supplier sold out venues across the country months before the movie hit video.

Fritz made it clear, however, that Big Idea's core consumers don't just shop at Christian bookstores. Marketing at a mass retailer could entice someone to buy it at a Christian bookstore, and vice versa.

“Studies show a core consumer is in a [Christian bookstore] five to six times a year,” he said. “They might be in a Wal-Mart 50 times a year.”

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