Faith films challenge Hollywood at box office

The true story behind the hit song for the band MercyMe took $25m in seven days amid a recent rise of religious movies

As Hollywood struggles with sexual harassment scandals and box-office woes, it could do worse than turn toGod. For while religious movies have traditionally been considered a niche phenomenon, that assessment may need to be revised.

Last weekend I Can Only Imagine, a Christian-themed independent biopic, beat a series of studio-backed films to win the number three spot behind Black Panther and Tomb Raider. And as Easter approaches, films with Christian messages are experiencing an upswing not seen since Mel Gibsons 2004 crucifixion drama The Passion of Christ.

I Can Only Imagine stars Dennis Quaid and was produced and directed by brothers Jon and Andy Erwin, the duo behind other faith-based hits such as Woodlawn, the story of a spiritual awakening among an Alabama high-school football team, starring Jon Voight and Sean Astin, and October Baby, an anti-abortiondrama.

The Erwins latest film tells the story of an abusive father (Quaid) who inspires his son to write the song I Can Only Imagine, based loosely on their relationship. In reality it was written by Bart Millard, lead singer of the band MercyMe who, at the age of 14, witnessed his dying fatherstransformation.

I went from seeing my father go from a monster to a man who was desperately in love with Jesus, Millard told the Christian Broadcast Network last week. He wrote the song in 1998; five years later it went on to become the bestselling Christian single of all time.

That did not impress film executives. Jon Erwin says he was told there was no audience for a Christian music movie … But everybody I knew in the Christian world that we live in knew and loved the song, so we just believed that there was an audience for this movie and that they would show up. I Can Only Imagine was ultimately picked up by Roadside Attractions, maker of Manchester By The Sea, and Lionsgate. The distributors agreed to promote it as a general audience production. With a $25m box-office take so far, it is also showing Hollywood that Christians can make consistent, repeat filmgoers. Audience polling found that 79% said they planned to pay to see the movie again.

Shane harper stars in Gods Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, released in the US on 30 March and in the UK on 25 May.
The faith-based genre is showing Hollywood that age and diversity are not necessarily antithetical to box-office success, and offer starring roles to actors who may no longer be at the top of casting directors call-in lists.

In last years hit The Shack, God was played by a black woman, an Asian woman played the Holy Spirit and Jesus was played by an Israeli, says Peter Chattaway, reviewer for the faith-based film site, Patheos. A 10-part mini-series, The Bible, cast Samson as black; in the follow-up series, AD: The Bible Continues, several apostles were black and Mary Magdalene was part black, partChinese.

Churches are increasingly diverse and that is being reflected in the films that are being made for their congregations, says Chattaway.

Other recent successes include Heaven Is for Real, the story of a boy who briefly dies, which grossed $91m in the US. Fireproof, about a porn-addicted fireman, made $33m from a $500,000 budget. Gods Not Dead, which follows a college student whose faith is challenged by a philosophy professor, made twice that.

Movies like Gods Not Dead are a lot more tribalistic and play to an us-versus-them mindset, Chattaway says. In the first of the series, the atheist villain is knocked down by a car and converts as he is dying. The second sequel, Chattaway says, is more conciliatory. It almost seems like an apology. It says weve got to get past our divisions.

From left: Joanne Whalley, Jim Caviezel and John Lynch star in Paul, Apostle of Christ, released last Friday in the US and on 30 March in the UK. Photograph: Affirm Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

This week sees the release of Paul, Apostle of Christ, starring Joanne Whalley, and the broadcast of an NBC television staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice classic, with R&B singer John Legend as Jesus and rock star Alice Cooper as King Herod.

Increasingly, Chattaway says, filmmakers are looking to other corners of the Bible for material. Three years ago there was Killing Jesus, which focused on Johanna in Lukes gospel.

She was one of patrons of the Jesus movement along with Mary Magdelene. She supported the movement with her own money. It also says that her husband worked for King Herod. That raises all sorts of questions. Why was the wife of one of Herods top servants hanging out with the Jesus movement?

But not all faith-based films thrive. Last week saw the release (outside the US) of Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. One reviewer described it as a portentous and lugubrious revision … the dreariest story ever told.

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