Churchgoers seen as an untapped market
Hollywood is finding God again.
Inspired by box-office smashes such as “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” studios are making more religious-themed stories, but they’re also marketing movies more aggressively to churchgoers.
Producers now find themselves in churches, imploring ministers to plug their pictures. Studios are screening their films in church community rooms. One studio has created a “faith division” to market to the devout.
The strategy has two aims: to use faith-based hits to help staunch a three-year box-office slide and to convert those with little faith in Hollywood fare into permanent moviegoers.
No fewer than a dozen films with religious themes are on tap through 2007. And though not all of the movies are overtly spiritual, all are hoping to cash in on a demographic that has been largely overlooked since Charlton Heston grabbed some tablets and a chariot a half-century ago.
Among the most high-profile in the works:
“The Da Vinci Code” (opening May 19). Based on Dan Brown’s best seller, the Tom Hanks thriller tells of a murder at the Louvre and a possible coverup by the Vatican.
“Nativity” (Dec. 1). Keisha Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider”) plays the Virgin Mary in this story of her trek with Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.
“The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” (Dec. 14, 2007). The Christian parable and sequel to last year’s hit continues with the story of siblings caught in a battle of good and evil in a fantasy kingdom.
“Hollywood is finally waking up to the fact that people who go to church also go to the movies,” says Tyler Perry, the director who turned his church plays into the surprise hits “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and “Madea’s Family Reunion.” “I’m not sure what took them so long to see that — or how long they’ll keep it up.
“But at least we’re getting the chance to prove that there’s an audience for movies with the right message.”
There’s also money. The literary world has been reaping profits for decades with religious fare. The biblical “Left Behind” novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, for example, have racked up sales of more than $650 million and spawned four movies.
But it wasn’t until “Passion” arrived in theaters in February 2004 that major studios saw their own stairway to financial heaven.
Before Mel Gibson’s telling of the Crucifixion, “we all knew we had a lot to learn about this market, which was obviously underserved,” says Steve Feldstein of 20th Century Fox’s new division, Fox Faith.
The department markets the studio’s DVDs and feature films to hundreds of pastors nationwide. The studio offers churches trailers, posters and even Bible study guides for its Christian-based home videos with titles such as “Beyond the Splendor Gates” and “Hangman’s Curse.”
As “Passion” marched to more than $370 million in North America, “it gave us all our MBAs pretty quickly,” Feldstein says. Executives discovered that a thumbs-up from a pastor could go further than one from a film critic and that word of mouth spreads pretty quickly in a church, he says. “For many families, church isn’t just somewhere you go to pray,” he says. “It’s a social venue. There’s more opportunity for discussion of things beyond just faith.”
Reuben Cannon discovered the power of the divine at the box office in Houston in 2003. Cannon, a producer, was attending the annual Woman, Thou Art Loosed conference, a religious convention based on Bishop T.D. Jakes’ self-help novel of the same name.
Cannon was astounded to see the conference draw 60,000 people, primarily women, each day of the three-day convention. “Rock stars don’t draw 60,000 women a day,” he says. “I thought if we could bring in that kind of audience into a theater, we’d have a hit.”
He was right. Cannon produced the film adaptation of “Loosed” in 2004 for less than $1 million. It brought in nearly $7 million and paved the way for Cannon to produce two No. 1 films, last year’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” which raked in $50.6 million, and this year’s “Reunion,” which did $63.1 million, more than 10 times its budget.
He built momentum for the films much the way Gibson did for “Passion” and Disney executives did for “Narnia”: with private screenings for church members and private sales pitches to ministers.
“With so much competition, you can’t just put your movie out there with a few ads,” says Chuck Viane, head of distribution for Disney. “You have to build word of mouth. And it can build quickly” in the religious community.
When the church is united behind a film, “it has a pretty profound effect,” Cannon says. “That’s why people are paying a lot more attention to the mega-pastors. When you’ve got thousands of people who listen to you every week, when you can rent out entire theaters, you’ve got a powerful voice.”
Indeed, studios are finding that ministers who preach to flocks of 5,000 or more a week can be as powerful a marketing tool as a slick advertising campaign.
The clergy, says Steve Rothenberg, distribution chief for Lions Gate Films, are one of the few links “to a group that’s been largely ignored when it comes to movies.”
“I’m not sure why, but Hollywood didn’t consider (churchgoers) a very viable audience,” says Rothenberg, whose studio distributed “Diary” and “Reunion.” “But I think that’s changing, especially with the success of the movies recently.”
Industry executives are revising traditional advertising campaigns to recognize audiences of faith. Traditionally, studios market movies to the “four quadrants”: men, women, moviegoers younger than 25, and those 25 and older. The churchgoing community has become the “fifth quadrant.”
Just how big that demographic is, however, is anyone’s guess. According to a Gallup survey in December, about 57 percent of Americans consider religion “very important” in their everyday lives.
“Hollywood has found religion before. Through the 1950s, studios churned out hits (1953’s “The Robe,” 1956’s “The Ten Commandments,” 1959’s “Ben-Hur”). But by the mid-’60s, religious epics gave way to musicals, leaving religious fare largely to niche producers.
Hollywood is just now rediscovering the scope of the faith-based audience, says Joel Silver, who is producing “The Reaping,” starring Hilary Swank as a Christian missionary who loses her faith after a tragedy. It’s due Aug. 11. “We really haven’t marketed to that group,” Silver says. “I’m not sure why.