Hollywood — Laurie Foos, a student at the Fuller Theological Seminary, figured she didn’t need to rush out to see New Line Cinema’s “The Nativity Story” in its first week. She waited until her kids came home from college, venturing to the theater on Christmas Day, nearly a month after the movie opened. But by then, “Nativity” was out of her local multiplex.
“It was the perfect day to see it, but they had pulled it from the theater,” said Foos, adding that if she had heard more about the film from within the Christian community, she would have seen it opening day, Dec. 1. “I wish there had been more awareness. It was lacking that kind of ‘Oh my gosh, you have to go see that movie’ factor.”
In the movie business, the first weekend is a crucial gauge in determining whether a movie lives or dies. The soft $8 million opening for “The Nativity Story” wounded its chances of becoming a holiday hit and could dampen Hollywood’s enthusiasm for big-budget faith-based movies.
Competition later in the month forced many exhibitors to push “Nativity” off the marque to make room for such family films as “Night at the Museum,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” and “Charlotte’s Web.”
Even so, “Nativity” held on strong for several weeks, performing particularly well the week before Christmas. Ticket sales for the film, which tells the story of Mary and Joseph on the way to the birth of Jesus, went up 52 percent the Wednesday before Christmas and 96 percent Thursday. The movie is now expected to gross about $40 million by the beginning of January — a solid showing, considering its weak opening.
“Sampling with this audience takes time,” said Russell Schwartz, head of marketing for New Line. “This was never about a huge opening weekend.”
“Nativity’s” foray into the Christian film market comes after the huge success of “The Passion of the Christ,” which opened to $84 million in February of 2004 and went on to gross more than $612 million worldwide, with $241 million coming from abroad.
“Nativity” did not perform well in predominately Christian countries such as Italy, Spain and Latin America. “It’s one of those movies that people put unrealistic expectations on because of ‘Passion of the Christ,’ but it’s a solid performer,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers. ” ‘The Passion’ was a cultural phenomenon that went beyond the faith-based audience. The Christian audience is out there but, like any specifically targeted audience, you can’t expect blockbusters to come just from that audience. But if you keep your budgets in line, you can make some solid returns on these movies.”
New Line spent approximately $65 million making and marketing “Nativity” and will likely make its money back on home video.
Wyck Godfrey, producer of “The Nativity Story,” fears his movie’s slow momentum at the box office will discourage others from making large-budget, overtly Christian entertainment.
“We were relieved by how it held up. But it has struck a blow to bigger-budget epic biblical stories,” said Godfrey. “I’m not running out to do the (life of the) Apostle Paul and I was thinking about doing it before.”
Other studios, such as 20th Century Fox’s FoxFaith division, are distributing low-budget Christian films, but most of them will skip theaters and go directly to video. Most studios will likely stick to making mainstream fare and reaching out to the Christian audience when marketing movies with family-friendly themes such as “Charlotte’s Web” or “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Courting Christians, many of whom rarely go to the theater, takes time in part because of their historical distrust of Hollywood entertainment as violent, sex-laden and often disrespectful of their religious values.
“Moviegoing is a habit,” said Dergarabedian. “Christian audiences are not in the habit of supporting Hollywood movies, because mainstream Hollywood movies don’t reflect their values. To get them out to theaters is a little tougher.”
Some Christians were disappointed that “Nativity,” directed by Catherine Hardwicke, did not push the envelope.
In an essay in the monthly magazine “Christianity Today,” editor David Neff gave the movie a generally good review but criticized it for shying away from depicting the true hardship of Mary and Joseph’s era. Neff wrote that the film was done with “Christmas-card sentimentality” and glossed over the period’s violence, such as Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.
Godfrey said it is a sign of the times that a film needs controversy or an edge to gain an audience.
“We unfairly get compared to ‘The Passion‘ because it was so shocking,” said Godfrey. “If I was going for box office, I would have been better off putting something sacrilegious and re-interpretative, like, was Mary really a virgin? But I didn’t want to do that.”
Fuller Theological student Foos is hopeful that studios will continue to make biblically inspired films.
“They have to win over this audience,” said Foos. “If they look at this as a failure, then that’s too bad. This was their initiation and a way to gain credibility. They could put the movie out next Christmas. It comes around every year, you know.”