For decades, Hollywood has ignored and alienated Christians and other culturally conservative audiences, producing mainstream films with gratuitous sex and violence. But with recent box office hits marketed to Christian audiences, could things be changing?
The Passion of the Christ in 2004 started the trend. Although mainstream studios declined to support the project, Mel Gibson put tens of millions of dollars in his own money to produce it. And despite the scant support from Hollywood, it was one of the biggest box office successes of all time, bringing in nearly $400 million worldwide. That achievement prompted a slew of Christian-oriented movies marketed to a wider audience, such as 2006’s The Nativity Story, though mainstream studios still largely declined to produce films with a Christian message or marketed to a Christian or culturally conservative audience.
Things began to change, however, when two pastors with little experience in filmmaking released 2008’s Fireproof, a movie about a troubled marriage starring Kirk Cameron. The film was produced on a lean $1 million budget, but after churches spread the word, the movie ended up a hit, grossing $33 million at the box office. The success of Fireproof launched a sub-genre of Christian-oriented films. With consistently solid box office performances that usually turn a tidy profit, production values have gone up, and these films have improved in quality. Nevertheless, most are produced by independent companies because mainstream studios still won’t put their names on them. One notable exception is Sony Pictures and its Affirm Films and TriStar subdivisions, which have produced many successful films in this genre, such as Risen and Son of God.
Two of the latest examples of high-quality Christian films are I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ, both of which were released just before Easter this year. I Can Only Imagine, just like its eponymous song, has been a smash hit, surprising observers with a $17 million opening weekend, good enough for third at the box office. It continues to outperform expectations, approaching $60 million grossed in total, all on a slim $7 million production budget. Paul, Apostle of Christ, a gritty PG-13 drama starring Jim Caviezel and James Faulkner about the life of the most widely-read writer in history and the persecution of Christians, has also been a success, grossing $12 million and counting (though it has arguably been overshadowed by the hype surrounding I Can Only Imagine).
After dozens of successful and highly profitable films, though, most major studios (except Sony Pictures) are still afraid to sign onto Christian movies and give them the production budgets they need to continue to increase in quality and performance, even though they are profitable and well-received. Will the success of films such as I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ finally convince them to get on board?