In 2004 Mel Gibson revitalized the film industry with a subtitled, bloody, violent re-enactment of the Passion story in The Passion of the Christ. The film grossed over $300 million and has become regular viewing each Easter on TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network) as well as in churches and Bible studies all over the country. Twelve years later the amount of successful Christian cinema has been underwhelming, to say the least. The Kirk Cameron melodramas and kooky comedies haven’t produced much of a buzz, and with the exception of 2014’s God’s Not Dead ($62 million) and 2015’s War Room ($73 million), most faith-based films haven’t clicked with audiences. Conservative and Christian audiences claim they want family-based entertainment reflecting their values and faith, but it seems as if Hollywood and the conservative Christian right can’t get on the same page. With Ben-Hur bombing epically at the box office and films like 2014’s Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings not meeting box office or award season expectations, where can conservative audiences go to find films that they’ll enjoy and be able to talk about to their co-workers and neighbors?
Ben-Hur was supposed to be the film that revitalized the Christian market but instead found most of its theater seats empty. Part of the problem is that Hollywood is still trying to figure out how to market to a Christian audience that feels Hollywood hates them and to a secular audience that wants a good night at the cinema.
Deadline Hollywood reports, “Faith Driven Consumer founder Chris Stone beamed to his organization’s members, ‘Ben-Hur is an example of Hollywood getting it right,’ pointing out that the film’s depiction of Jesus Christ ‘is love-based, not fire and brimstone’ and was floored by how the crucifixion scene depicted ‘Christ taking Judah Ben-Hur’s hate with him.’ ” The problem is that getting the clergy behind a film doesn’t really mean that much in the long run with a Pokemon Go demographic and people who walked away from their faith.
Deadline went on to report: “It’s good to see all their pastor endorsements, but that doesn’t impact the average Christian moviegoer to attend. When they see a scene that openly proclaims the Gospel, and it resonates to the point where I can take my brother-in-law, who has lapsed from church, to finally get on board; that’s what provokes me to buy a ticket at the window,” said one faith-based marketing executive.
The real truth is that Christian audiences will go see regular films too. Christians love movies like Napoleon Dynamite, Forrest Gump, Lord of the Rings, The Shawshank Redemption and Pixar films. But those films are underdog stories, redemption tales and not anti-American propaganda. So often Hollywood will make ultra-violent and wildly sexual films with characters who judge violence and sex as prudes and “redeem” them by having them partake in the pleasures on film. Many times the conservative characters will forgo their moral compass and join in on the behavior frowned upon by religious conservatives. They’ll shoot the bad guy or bed their romantic counterpart, whereas in the previously mentioned films the characters are trying to be good in a scary and judgmental world. Napoleon wins over the school; Forrest loves God, country and mama; and Frodo carries the burden of a fallen world. And they didn’t have to become something they were not. Hollywood has to realize that Christians aren’t a missing audience; they’re already at the movies. Films don’t gross $300-plus+ million without conservatives and Christians backing them in some percentage.
Ben-Hur was a nice effort to try to create a Christian film, but in a post-modern, post-Facebook, post-iPhone world, old-time biblical epics may not be the wave of the future. The future of Christian/faith-based cinema should just be to create entertainment that preaches the values religious people love and doesn’t create objectionable material in the process.
This really is an easy equation.
Good Film + PG or PG-13 rating + Redemptive Story = Everyone is happy.
Hollywood is filled with smart, talented, creative people. They know this formula will work. Christians want these films. Hollywood wants their money. So why not just give the audience what it wants?