Cinema is a new frontier for Christians. With a few notable exceptions (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, etc.), the Church had historically taken a posture of defiance against the emerging art form. As society became increasingly image driven and rapid technological advances made evading Hollywood’s influence harder, a noticeable shift occurred. The Church recognized that it could harness cinematic power for evangelistic purposes. Faith-based films have now become annual staples at the theaters, with several becoming surprise hits and box-office juggernauts. With the recent financial success of Unplanned, and another Christian film (Breakthrough) hitting theaters this week, there is no question that faith-based films are making an impact. But what and how significant is that impact?
As a case study, consider the movies Sherwood Pictures produced. A clear upward trend is evident in their box-office gross: Facing the Giants ($10 million); Fireproof ($33 million); Courageous ($34 million); and War Room ($67 million). Nationwide, the films peaked at #12, #4, #4, and #1, despite having significantly lower production and marketing budgets than other wide-release films. Do these numbers prove that Christians are making a major mark in Hollywood? Not necessarily. At least not in the way or to the extent we might assume. The glossy box-office numbers are impressive, but they do not tell the full story.
Examining the Current Impact
At least three factors provide some clarity on the films’ swelling box-office success:
First, the budget. Facing the Giants had a $100,000 budget compared to War Room’s $3 million budget. As faith-based movies earn more money, more funding is put into making bigger and better films.
Second, the distribution. As larger audiences flock to the films, distributors and theater chains have put the movies onto more screens. The screen count for the four Sherwood films expanded from 441 to 905 to 1,214 to 1,945. Hollywood—with dollar signs in its eyes—has granted Christians a larger space to operate. Faith-based films are good for business, and now Hollywood knows it.
Third, the critic and audience scores. Faith-based movies are perhaps the most divisive films in Hollywood. Generally speaking, critics hate them and audiences love them. For example, according to Rotten Tomatoes, War Room has an average critic rating of 4.4/10 and an average audience rating of 8.8/10. Do professional film critics dislike the film due to its religious themes? Perhaps a little. More significantly, however, this discrepancy suggests that the audiences going to these movies are predominately (if not exclusively) Christian. If the low critic scores reflect an anti-religious bias, a similar bias should be evident in the audience ratings—but it isn’t. A glance through the audience reviews seems to confirm as much. The film’s audience is more likely to praise its agreeable religious themes than to fret about the production quality or acting caliber.
We can draw three conclusions from these factors:
1) Christians are getting more serious about making movies.
2) Hollywood is providing a wider platform for these movies.
3) Christian audiences are becoming more intentional about seeing these movies.
Are these films successful? The answer depends on the goal. If the aim is to get more Christians into movie theaters so they are encouraged and challenged by content catered to them, these films are a smashing and unprecedented success.
On the other hand, if the goal is to impact the movie industry and, by extension, the wider culture, Christians should hold off on the victory parade. Faith-based films are not so much crashing the Hollywood party as they are being allotted a side room to host their own (more sanitized) counter event. The good news? Other party-goers might stumble in. The bad news? People also know exactly where to find the Christian message in Hollywood and can easily avoid it.
A Lasting Legacy?
In some ways, the major success of the first goal may become a detriment to the second. Faith-based films have proven to be “critic proof,” with a built-in audience that will continue to swarm the theaters and praise them regardless of their quality if the message is agreeable. Some Christians attended these movies out of a duty to support faith-based films and, by extension, their message (“A ticket for War Room is an endorsement of the importance of prayer.”). This approach is commendable in some ways. The danger, however, is that there is currently little incentive or motivation to improve, explore new genres and narrative approaches, or risk more complex thematic material and content. Don’t fix what isn’t broken.
Without the above-mentioned growth, faith-based films will likely remain a Hollywood anomaly, with limited impact on the industry.
Consider The Passion of the Christ. The movie was an unprecedented success, earning $611,899,420 (out-grossing Harry Potter 3 and Pixar’s The Incredibles) and, somewhat ironically, becoming the highest-grossing R-Rated film in history. The film firmly cemented Jesus as a bonafide Hollywood star! Yet, despite making a substantial impression upon its initial release, the film did not have much of a legacy (its disgraced director’s deeds certainly didn’t help). A Barna Group survey (you can read it here) revealed that, while the film had a relatively strong initial impact, within a few weeks, most regular movie-goers had already seen several other films with competing narratives and messages that diminished the original experience’s impact. The study concluded that the most effective way to achieve a lasting impact is for a movie-goer to be exposed to a message repeatedly over a long period of time rather than having a single “bombshell” experience (regardless of how powerful). In other words, the few faith-based film success stories sprinkled into the theaters each year are like stones tossed into the raging river of Hollywood. They create a brief splash but are quickly lost to the swift and steady current.
Where does all of this leave us? Should Christians discredit or devalue recent faith-based films’ major accomplishments? Absolutely not! At the same time, we should not overstate the accomplishments’ impact. Christians should not stop making films like War Room and God’s Not Dead, but neither should these films’ success deter Christians from striving for a more subversive and longer-lasting impact. Faith-based movies have greater potential than simply getting Christians into theater seats. Christians are called to be “salt” (Matt 5:13). Yes, salt preserves, but it also flavors. Current faith-based films have done an admirable job of preserving some decency and wholesomeness in a rotting and decaying industry. Now it’s time to start adding a little spice.