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 toward the emerging art form. As society became increasingly image-driven and advances in technology made it harder to evade Hollywood’s influence, a noticeable shift occurred. The Church recognized that it could harness that same cinematic power for its own evangelistic purposes. These days, faith-based films have become annual staples at the theaters—several of them even becoming surprise hits and box-office juggernauts. Faith-based films are definitely making an impact—but what and how significant is that impact?
As a case study, let’s consider the movies produced by Sherwood Pictures. There’s a clear upward trend 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 12th, 4th, 4th, and #1 (for two consecutive weeks), despite 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 that some have assumed. The glossy box-office numbers are certainly impressive, but they might not tell the full story.
Examining the Current Impact
At least 3 factors provide clarity of the films’ growing box office success and impact:
First, the budget. Facing the Giants had a $100,000 budget compared to the $3 million budget for War Room. As faith-based movies earn more money, more money has been put back into making bigger and better films. As the production improves, the audience grows.
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 swelled from 441 to 905 to 1,214 to 1,945. Hollywood, with dollar signs in their 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 simply hate the film due to its religion themes? Perhaps. Yet, I think it also suggests that the audiences going to these movies are predominately (if not exclusively) Christians. If the low critic scores reflect an anti-religious bias, then we’d expect the same from the audience ratings—but that’s not the case. A glance though the audience reviews themselves seem to confirm as much. This is an audience more likely to praise the film for its agreeable religious themes than to fret about the production quality or acting caliber.
These factors suggest three things:
1) Christians are getting more serious about making movies.
2) Hollywood is providing a wider platform to release the movies.
3) Christian audiences are becoming more intentional about seeing the movies.
Is this a success? That depends on the goal. If the aim is to get more Christians into the movie theaters to be encouraged and challenged by content catered for them, then these films are a smashing and unprecedented success.
On the other hand, if the goal is to impact the movie industry itself and, by extension, the wider culture, then Christians should hold off on the victory parade. At this point, faith-based films have not crashed the Hollywood party as much as they’ve been 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 is actually in danger of becoming a detriment to the second goal. Faith-based films have proven to be “critic-proof”, with a built-in audience that will continue to swarm the theaters and praise the film regardless of its quality, as long as the film’s message remains agreeable. I’ve known several Christians who 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…”). I’m not suggesting this attitude is right or wrong. The danger, though, is that there is currently little incentive or motivation to continue to develop, 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 growth, faith-based films will likely remain a Hollywood anomaly with limited impact on the industry itself and little interest to a wider audience. In doing so, we’re placing an unrealistic burden on these films to achieve more than any one film can. For example, take 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 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 lasting legacy (the deeds of its disgraced director certainly didn’t help, either). A Barna Group survey (you can read it here) suggests 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, which diminished the impact of that original experience. The study concluded that the most effective way to achieve a lasting impact is for movie-goer to constantly be exposed to a message over a longer period of time, rather than a single “bombshell” experience (regardless of how powerful). In other words, a few faith-based film success stories sprinkled into the theaters each year are like stones tossed into the raging river of Hollywood, creating a brief splash but quickly lost and forgotten to the swift and steady current.
The Bottom Line
Where does all of this leave us? Should we discredit or devalue the major accomplishments of recent faith-based films? Absolutely not! At the same time, let’s be honest and not overstate the actual impact of those accomplishments. Christians should not stop making films like War Room and God’s Not Dead, but neither should the success of these films deter Christians from striving for a more subversive and longer-lasting impact. There’s so much more potential for faith-based movies than to get more Christians into theater-seats. As Christians, we’re called to be “salt” (Matt 5:13). Yes, salt preserves…but it also flavors. Current faith-based films have done admirably at preserving some decency and wholesomeness in a rotting and decaying industry. Now it’s time to start adding a little more tasty spice.