Show Faith in Moviegoers: Devout audiences respond to unprecedented range of films

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“Consider your audience, and if you engage your audience in a meaningful way, people will come.” Although Chris Stone, certified brand strategist and founder of Raleigh, North Carolina-based Faith Driven Consumer (FDC) is talking about some 41 million Americans who are guided by their beliefs—and spend $2 trillion annually in the process—he provides advice that holds true for pretty much all moviegoers. And, in fact, for all types of businesses too.

“I told somebody representing a big bank who is reaching out to the faith-based community that we don’t care what you know until we know how much you care. So, if theatre operators say, ‘You are important to us’... and that is not merely a claim of distinction but it comes with a proof of performance, then they will be rewarded and people will come to the movie.”

Since our first article on the subject was published in the April edition, moviegoers have come indeed to see this unprecedented offering of faith-based films, all released on a decidedly short schedule between Feb. 19 and April 1 in North America. Risen, The Young Messiah, Miracles from Heaven and God’s Not Dead 2—jointly grossing more than $120 million at press time—were hailed by Faith Driven Consumer as hitting the high standards that they expect and set for entertainment.

The group praised Columbia Pictures’ Risen for its authenticity, and called Focus Features’ The Young Messiah “very thought-provoking.” Sony/TriStar’s Miracles from Heaven was praised as “the inspirational movie of the year... one of those rare films that the whole family, from the little ones up to mom and dad, will enjoy together.” And Pure Flix’s God’s Not Dead 2 was deemed  “chillingly realistic, a wake-up call for Christians and non-Christians alike that the freedoms we have had as Americans for centuries are under assault. We see this movie becoming a movement, a moment where reasonable people will come together to advocate for tolerance, inclusiveness and equality for all of the colors in our nation’s rich rainbow of diversity—including Faith Driven Consumers.”

In all, FDC noted that “Hollywood is rolling out faith content with a pace and frequency that has not been seen in a generation. A vast audience—one which has been largely underserved—is finally being offered the choices they have been seeking, and filmmakers will continue to be richly rewarded.”

Looking at the statistics compiled by BoxOfficeMojo.com, all four films are now among the top 30 “Christian Films,” as the numbers aggregator calls the category. Also represented are 2015 releases War Room (as high as number six), Woodlawn and Do You Believe?, and 2014 favorites such as Heaven Is for Real, God’s Not Dead and Son of God. Filmmakers and movie theatres have come a long way since category-topper The Passion of the Christ debuted in 2004. “Entertainment and the marketplace is where people spend the bulk of their time and money,” Stone previously noted in Film Journal International. “You can tell what is important to somebody by their calendar and their checkbook.”

Stone feels this is exactly where advocacy comes in. “We encourage the faith-driven consumer community to go see the movie... We are not about boycott, meaning I do not buy something because something has offended me. We are all about buycott, which involves rewarding people for doing it right and encouraging them when they can do it better. Our definition of profit—and I think it is a fairly universal one—is about the rewards you get for giving people what they need and what they want.”

While acknowledging how “the theatre works with the studios that market and the producers who create content,” he also recognizes the limitations. “The problem with small budgets, as you know, is that the P&A money and the production money are finite, and because this is finite, you have to wait till the last minute to really get into the market... That’s why we think platforming in this emerging market is a good idea: Let it build over time.” Assessing the response by faith-driven moviegoers, “we are not looking only at the box office, we are looking at the per-screen average... When you get a movie like War Room that really dukes it out with Straight Outta Compton, which was a much bigger film—in terms of budget, P&A and screen count, the whole thing—you get to see the true result.”

Now that consumers driven by their faith have come to our theatres, how do we keep them coming? As faith-driven consumers can lend—and, in fact, are lending—support by creating a theatre “buycott,” Stone believes exhibition and distribution “need to work together” in order to showcase the film. “I’d really like to see the studio and the theatres come together…and make a significant push to get a faith-based movie out there.”

As someone who, along with our readers, believes in movie theatres, this author wonders what Stone thinks about the special experience of seeing these films together in the theatre? In the early days, some of the movie palaces were called “Cathedrals of Motion Pictures” and they represented the idea of assembly and inspiration. Shouldn’t sharing the experience work particularly well for films that touch the heart and soul?

Agreeing, Stone brings up the example of a film that “did not do well for various reasons. The Song, and it was a beautiful film about the reality of falling into sin. We hosted a pre-release showing in the Regal theatre here…about 200 people, probably 70% full. And when you saw this guy getting ready to cheat on his wife... everybody all at once went, ‘No, don’t do it.’ So, yes, there are movies that lend themselves to community viewing.”

That said, Stone draws the comparison to watching a faith film at home. With all the technology available, “I can have that experience at home, but I do not have everybody to share it with. Watching a movie by yourself is a completely different experience than watching it with a group of people.” Furthermore, he believes, “not all small-budget films need a theatre, but if you create enough of something, an emotional connection or common bond, then it will resonate with people and they will respond together. We are supportive of theatres. I think they’ve got a harder business to be in because I can duplicate a lot of it at home, but I cannot duplicate the community aspect. And people are not solitary. We were not designed to be solitary. We were designed to be in community. That is how we were created.”

What about Chris Stone himself? “If I cannot take my family, I generally stay home, because I work hard, like I’m sure you do, and I have limited time,” he says. “When there is a movie that I can take my family to, we will go. If there is not, then we stay at home,” and watch the entire box set of Star Wars instead. “My kids had never seen any of it,” he notes, adding that they all went out to see the latest chapter at the theatre while on vacation after Christmas. “My kids prefer to go to the movie theatre, that’s a big treat. But on any given weekend, I can look and not find something that is worthy of taking them to. If you look through the lens of what you want your ten-year-old to watch and you have a biblical view, it narrows the field significantly. Even in Risen, at the beginning there is realistic and appropriate violence because it was a very violent time. So I am not saying that it is gratuitous, but that first part is a little edgy for my kids. Especially when they see the crucifixion, because they know the story and they know the truth of it. Even though they rejoice that Jesus rose to redeem them, it is still hard to watch.”

What about films that are easier on the eyes? How does Stone select a film, and what does he base the decisions on? “It is not just faith-based films,” he explains. “It does not have to have a biblical message, but it has to have some redeeming value. What we are seeing in some of the ‘family stuff’ is humor that is inappropriate or there is a political or social message being pushed that may or may not be in alignment with my worldview. Like I said before, they can make whatever movie they want to, because it is their business and we support their freedom to do so.”

All the while, Stone and his family are enjoying the freedom of choice at home. “We actually buy a lot of DVDs, because when I am moving around, I can control that…and we also watch a lot of Amazon Prime, iTunes and a lot of Netflix. So we are good all around—we spend money around the entertainment space.” As an aside, he points out that when they are looking for a film on any of those services, “I have to send my kids across the room because they like to hover over me, saying, ‘I want to watch this, I want to watch that.’ There is so much stuff mixed together with cover art that is not appropriate for young eyes, that I have to wade through it.”

Marketing is another factor that Stone—as a faith-based consumer—is concerned about. “In the movie theatre, it is all mixed together,” he observes, providing some final food for exhibitor thought. “I do not know how to fix that problem and am not going to say they should do such and such. They do have to showcase what they are showing.”

And one final note on that: “The studio needs to make the right product, it needs to make it authentic,” Stone reiterates. “They have a model that they follow and they understand that model. But when they put something in there that suits their model but does not suit the audience, then it is just gratuitous.” Stone cautions about language, violence and gratuitous sex. “If you can get past all that and give us real meat, people will show up.”

Poll Details How To Succeed With Faith Audiences:

• 96% of Faith Driven Consumers (FDCs) say that their faith has a major influence on their entertainment choices, compared to 47% of Christians overall. 61% of FDCs rate faith’s influence as a 10, compared to 18% of Christians overall.

• 87% of Faith Driven Consumers are much more likely—58% very much more likely—to choose entertainment options that promote Christian-compatible values, compared to 54% of Christians overall, while 73% of Faith Driven Consumers avoid watching television and films that conflict with their Christian worldview, compared to 41% of Christians at large.

• 81% of Faith Driven Consumers are likely to recommend a movie to others, compared to 79% of Christians overall. 49% of FDCs are very likely to recommend a movie, compared to 39% of Christians overall, while 61% of Faith Driven Consumers are likely to discourage others from seeing a movie, compared to 49% of Christians overall. 31% of FDCs are very likely to discourage a movie, compared to 17% of Christians overall.

• 78% of Faith Driven Consumers say it would have a significant influence on their decision to see a film if their church encouraged it, compared to 55% of Christians overall, and 57% of Faith Driven Consumers’ churches encourage members to see specific faith-based films, compared to 36% of Christians overall.

Faith Driven Consumers and Christians overall: Importance of specific attributes

On a scale of one to five, Faith Driven Consumers rate biblical accuracy as the #1 factor in considering a film. Below is how all factors were rated.

• 60% gave “how accurately the movie reflects the Bible” a 5 (4-5: 84%), compared to 28% of Christians overall.

• 59% gave “compatibility with Christian values” a 5 (4-5: 89%), compared to 23% of Christians overall.

• 56% gave “how appropriate the film is for children” a 5 (4-5: 78%), compared to 30% of Christians overall.

• 51% gave “faith-compatible characters and relationships” a 5 (4-5: 83%), compared to 21% of Christians overall.

• 51% gave “faith-compatible situations” a 5 (4-5: 83%), compared to 20% of Christians overall.

• 50% gave “entertainment value” a 5 (4-5: 83%), compared to 36% of Christians overall.

For further details on the poll, visit http://americaninsights.org/.