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Faith-Based Content on the Rise

27 Apr, 2014 By: Chris Tribbey

When the Christian-themed indie film God’s Not Dead pulled in $8.6 million from just 780 theaters during its opening weekend in late March, many in the industry were surprised.

Not Michael Scott, managing partner of Pure Flix Entertainment, which produced the film (for around $2 million).

“Christian-themed films have always had a strong niche, and as faith-based entertainment hits the mainstream market in larger scales, the mass media is starting to pay more attention,” Scott said. “We were confident God’s Not Dead would do well, yet [it] performed better than we imagined ($49 million at the box office as of April 23). We’re humbled by its success and grateful to see how Hollywood has responded.”

If the 2014 box office performance of faith-based films out already — and the massive slate of Christian-themed films in the pipeline — is any indication, Hollywood is indeed responding.

Fox’s Son of God opened at the end of February to more than $25 million (nearly $60 million to date). Paramount’s Noah opened to the tune of nearly $44 million at the end of March ($94 million to date). Sony’s Heaven Is for Real opened April 16 to a massive $22.5 million (more than $34 million as of April 23).

Rich Peluso, SVP of Affirm Films (the Christian-themed content arm of Sony Pictures, which helped market Heaven Is for Real), said Christians have always come out to support faith-based films, but “we’re reaching a point where it’s much more visible.”

“I think [Christian titles] have always been there, like in overt projects like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told, or less overt projects like Chariots of Fire and ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ films,” Peluso said. “It’s been there. What’s happening [today] is there are new ways for digital marketing that allows for filmmakers, producers and studios to target and reach and energize those groups of people who really respond to Christian film.”

Dick Rolfe, CEO of The Dove Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes and recommends Christian-themed entertainment to families, said that while faith-based films are nothing new, what’s happening today is Hollywood’s recognition that Christians aren’t a small audience.

“It’s gotten everyone’s attention,” he said. “Hollywood for years has considered the religious audience to be a niche, and that’s a gross underestimation of the numbers — and the purchasing power — of the Christian audience.”

According to a mid-December report from Pew Research, 229 million Americans —73% of the nation’s population — identify themselves as Christian. A Harris Interactive Poll from December mirrors those results, reporting 74% of Americans believe in God. And in January, faith-based movie tracking service Movieguide released a study showing that, over the course of the past decade, movies adhering to Christian worldviews averaged more than $73 million at the box office, compared to $21 million for films that didn’t abide by Christian morals.

Those stats may have something to do with both the success of the faith-based films already out this year, and the industry’s investment in those still in the pipeline: Sony and Affirm Films release the Christian-themed comedy Mom’s Night Out May 9 (during Mother’s Day weekend); the indie faith-based feature A Long Way Off hits screens May 16; Christian-themed Alone Yet Not Alone is out mid-June; Left Behind, starring Nicolas Cage, is expected in October; and Fox has the Ridley Scott-directed feature Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale, set for release in mid December.

The current (and hoped-for) successes of Christian-themed content in theaters are one thing. But will consumers respond when those films hit their digital and disc windows?

The evidence seems conclusive that they will.

Last summer 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment announced it had sold more than 1 million DVD, Blu-ray Disc and Digital HD units of The History Channel miniseries The Bible. That was after the home entertainment release set records as one of the fastest-selling TV DVD releases of all time, right after its early April release.

Fox was the same studio that saw an unprecedented home entertainment response for a faith-based home entertainment film, with its mid-2004 DVD release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

And for this recent spate of Christian-themed films, another Fox title could prove to be a huge home media barometer: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s Son of God will be available May 6 for early digital purchase, before DVD and Blu-ray Disc on June 3.

According to Dove Foundation’s Rolfe, Fox’s Son of God — along with the faith-based Noah and Heaven Is for Real — will impress in the home entertainment window, not only among Christians, but also among those who are simply curious.

“These films [received] mixed reviews in the Christian audience, but all of them will translate very well in the home,” he said. “[People] want to see what the controversy is all about.”

Affirm Films’ Peluso can attest to the home entertainment staying power of faith-based films. It’s been almost three years since Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released the Christian-themed biopic film Soul Surfer ($49 million in theaters) on disc, and that title is still “a strong seller at both big-box and specialty retailers,” he said. “You don’t see that often.”

Big-hit, new-release titles drive the home entertainment sections of big-box retailers, Peluso conceded, but he stressed that faith-based films “have very long home entertainment tails, much more so than what you typically find at retail.”

There may be seasonal spikes in mainstream retail with Christian-themed home entertainment — Christmas, Easter, and, to a lesser extent, back to school — but at Christian-based retailers, there’s a year-round want for Christian-themed content, Peluso said.

A spokeswoman for Target noted that faith-based home entertainment content “see[s] a spike in sales around the Easter holiday,” but in general “Christian-themed titles have been popular with our guests [overall].”

It’s not just headline-grabbing theatrical releases that have a stake in the Christian-themed home entertainment market. According to data from the DVD & Blu-ray Release Report, between 1997 (the debut year of DVD) to 2010, there were approximately 1,500 religion-themed, non-feature films in the market. In 2013 alone there were 632 DVD releases in that category (compared to 391 in 2012 and 354 in 2011).

“Christian-themed titles appeal to such a wide spectrum, beyond that core, faith-based audience that practice religion,” said Leslie Ferrell, president of Big Idea Entertainment, a DreamWorks Animation subsidiary, best known for its computer-animated, Christian-themed “VeggieTales” series of home entertainment titles.

“They have wider acceptance because the stories are wholesome entertainment that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike,” Ferrell said. “We saw it with The History Channel’s [and Fox’s] DVD release of The Bible. The appetite is far and wide for a biblical perspective. It mirrors what the bestselling book is: The Bible.”

Other indie distributors have faith-based titles lined up: On May 24, Entertainment One releases on DVD the TDC Entertainment and Shelter Island title American Jesus, a documentary that looks at modern day Christianity in the U.S., and how diverse the religion has become in American culture.

Dan Gurlitz, president of TDC Entertainment, said the title is appealing to everyone — not just Christians — in that it “documents a perspective on America that is enlightening, painting a portrait … of Americans from all walks of life and how they each present their vision of Christianity to the public.”

“It’s not the Christian market that drove our decision [to distribute]; it’s the compelling, well-made documentary market that drove it,” he said. “The audience for American Jesus is incredibly broad and well beyond the Christian market alone.”

On April 1, Cinedigm and Mission Home Video released a 35th anniversary version of the 1979 film Jesus (renamed The Jesus Film) on DVD and Blu-ray Disc. Josh Newell, a spokesman for the Christian group (Campus Crusade for Christ) dedicated to distributing the film internationally, said the recent attention Christian-based content has received “stems from a release valve of pent up demand.”

“As a Christian audience, we long for quality options that buttress our beliefs in God and Jesus, and a desire to share our experience with others,” he said.

Jason Fields, writer and director of Midrange, another faith-based home entertainment title from Cinedigm (June 10 on DVD), concurred: “There’s a demand,” he said.

“People that share the faith want to see these films.”

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