Why Do Christian Films Bomb? (No, Really?)

Much to the surprise of Hollywood, The Passion of the Christ took in an earth-shattering $370.8 million domestically back in 2004 when it was released, cueing Hollywood into the huge, economic power of Christian moviegoers. The Passion was the fifth top-grossing film globally that year ($612 million), beating out the likes of Troy, Shark Tale and Meet the Fockers. And even now, it’s still the highest-grossing R-rated domestic movie of all time.

In the 13 years since, studio executives have been looking for those same ticket buyers. Most of the time, they haven’t found them.

But it’s not just Tinsel Town’s non-religious crowd scratching their heads. It’s also well-meaning, Kingdom-oriented directors and producers wondering what it takes these days to mine movie gold at the box office. Where are the folks that lined up to see The Passion and what does it take to get them (back?) into theater seats?

Because of what I do here at Plugged In, I’ve had the unique opportunity to give advice to film makers on several occasions. It’s more complicated than this, but I typically advise that all films should concentrate on the Big Two (a great story; and plenty of promotional dollars). Still, I realize plenty of other factors go into the mix to ultimately result in a box office smash. Guessing which faith-based films will succeed and which will bomb is iffy to say the least. But, without trying to pat myself on the back, I often predict correctly.

But admittedly, I don’t guess right every time. For instance, I could never have conjectured the success of God’s Not Dead ($60.7 million in 2014), nor did I presume Captive, stocked with a resonant story and A-list cast, would make a measly $2.5 million in 2015 (I thought more $25 million).

In Hollywood’s calculus, even movies that make quite a bit of money can be considered flops. Take a look at last year’s Ben-Hur remake, which made $26 million. In my opinion, that’s a lot of cash and about right for a remake that no one was asking to be remade. The problem was, Paramount Pictures reportedly spent $100 million to make it! If only the studio would have contacted me before racing those chariots!

For the last three years in a row, there have been at least 12 faith-based films annually. It actually works out to more than one a month on average, something I could only have dreamt about a decade ago. I say “at least,” because everyone defines “Christian film” or “faith-based film” differently. When I mentioned Captive above, a number of you said to yourself, “Well, that’s not a Christian film!” I get that. Add in films like Noah, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Silence, Hacksaw Ridge and Little Boy, and you can see why it’s difficult to get a handle on what a “Christian” film looks like and how collectively they are faring at the box office.

Still, even though we don’t always agree on what constitutes a “Christian film,” we’d all agree that there’s a lot more of ‘em these days than in the past. While no Christian film has hit Passion numbers, a boatload have done quite well (defined as significantly making more than their cost). For example, Heaven Is for Real cost $12 million to make and returned $91 million. Kendrick Brothers Pictures and AFFIRM Films spent $3 million on War Room in 2015, and studio was rewarded with a $68 million take. Son of God reportedly was made for $22 million and nearly tripled that at the box office.

Still, many Christian film makers can only dream about financial returns like these! Case in point: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, 2017’s first Christian movie. For its opening weekend (Jan. 20-22), it came in at a rather dismal 18th place with just $1,530 made per each theater. (For comparison’s sake, the weekend’s No. 1 movie, Split, collected $13,229 per theater).

I don’t know personally how it feels to make a movie that doesn’t do well, but I think I have a pretty good idea what it looks like to send something into the marketplace and have it greeted with the equivalent of a shoulder-shrug. (A media discernment book I wrote a few years back didn’t exactly hit the bestseller’s list.) You feel you’re doing the Lord’s work, confident that “your baby” will reach a lot of people for Christ. And then it doesn’t.

Gavin Stone’s director, Dallas Jenkins, posted the following on Facebook (excerpted below):

So what do you do when something you poured yourself into just doesn’t land?

I won’t mince words. The Resurrection of Gavin Stone had a very disappointing opening weekend and an even more disappointing day yesterday [Jan. 27]. Yes, we’ve gotten incredible feedback from those who’ve seen it, and it’s had tremendous impact on multiple churches and individuals. And that’s the main reason we do these movies.

But to be able to make more, your movie has to perform, and people on a mass scale need to want to see your movie. And as much as I can point to multiple factors that impacted the box office, I can’t play the blame game. Something I created and believed in and thought would work simply didn’t connect on a measurable level. People didn’t want to see it in a theater, and I thought they would. Period.

So what do you do when that happens, in any career path? Certainly sadness is a factor, and my wife and I have dealt with that over the last week for sure. Questioning yourself, the future, etc, is all part of it.

But Amanda and I did something that has sustained us through this time. We pursued God and sought to hear what we could from Him. He made it 100% clear, to us and through others who felt led to share something with me, that I’m only to bring my five loaves and two fishes, the rest is up to Him.

And I can honestly say I’m better spiritually right now than I’ve ever been.

For the first time in my life, I would be 100% fine if I couldn’t make another movie (and that may not be my choice! [smiley face] ). That’s actually a great place to be in.

I appreciate Dallas. I appreciate that he took a risk to make this movie. I appreciate his attitude. I’m glad he’s “better spiritually right now than [he’s] ever been.” Still, I’m disappointed for him. I’m a big Kingdom-guy. I want things that bring people to Christ, or strengthen people of faith to be hugely successful. Gavin clearly did not do that on the scale Dallas and his wife had hoped.

So, my question to you is, outside of the two factors I suggested above—a great story and plenty of promotional dollars—what else does it take for a faith-based film to be a hit? Nearly a third of Americans self-identify as “evangelical.” Why are these evangelicals (and others) not showing up for the Gavin Stones of the film world?

Who wrote this?

Bob Waliszewski is the director of the Plugged In department. His syndicated "Plugged In Movie Review" feature is heard by approximately 9 million people each week on more than 1,500 radio stations and other outlets and has been nominated for a National Religious Broadcaster's award. Waliszewski is the author of the book Plugged-In Parenting: How to Raise Media-Savvy Kids With Love, Not War. You can follow him on Twitter @PluggedInBob.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.