Keeping the Faith: Religious moviegoers drive demand for authenticity

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Cinemas Features

Rating movie theatres on their faith-friendliness was among the many firsts that the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought to our industry back in December. And, yes, that first relates to box office too, as the following conversation with Faith Driven Consumer (FDC) will show. The Raleigh, North Carolina-based advocacy organization represents some 41 million Americans who spend $2 trillion annually.

Based on FDC’s Faith Equality Index of 100 possible points that score more than 400 major brands, Regal Entertainment Group came out on top and AMC Theatres at the bottom of the major chains. Carmike Cinemas and Cinemark collected 37 and 36 points, respectively, with AMC counting 18 and Regal 40. The proprietary rating system sees Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby lead with Faith Equality around 62, with Apple and T-Mobile trailing at 19.

“Our community, empowered by the Faith Equality Index, will actively choose theatre chains that are more compatible than their competitors,” Chris Stone, certified brand strategist and founder of the group, noted at the time. “In a highly competitive marketplace, Faith Driven Consumers will determine the biggest winners…” Concurrently, researchers at American Insights revealed how 86% of those identifying as driven by faith are more likely to do business with a brand that welcomes them and acknowledges their values, to name but one of the key findings. In an October 2014 survey by the same group, 62% said they would watch at least three additional hours of TV or movies weekly if there were more faith-friendly options; 55% feel there are not enough options in the marketplace; and nearly 40% say lack of family-friendly options prevents them from going to the movies more often.

“Faith Driven Consumers are good for business,” FDC’s Chris Stone assures the readers of Film Journal International. “First of all, we do not rate anything as to whether it is good or whether it is bad,” he elaborates on methodology. “We do not rate whether it is a Christian company or not. We are rating on how well they are doing, specifically in engaging and including faith-driven consumers…and all through the lens of parity.” Any major corporate entity that is very diversity- and inclusion-centric would make and does make that fact a claim of distinction. Stone and FDC have observed “that there is largely a proof-of-performance problem,” however. Whereas those companies typically do well in engaging the LGBT community, African-American, Hispanic and Asian communities, with “those major market segments in the diversity and inclusion rainbow” well covered, Stone finds that a “glaring gap” exists when it comes to faith. By way of example, he brings up AT&T.

As one such “icon of diversity and inclusion,” the telecom giant gets 100% on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2016 Corporate Equality Index–along with 407 major businesses–as “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality.” On the HACR or Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility scale, they are in the top 40, and AT&T is in seventh place amongst the 2015 DiversityInc “Top 50 Companies for Diversity.” “We gave them a 17,” Stone notes, adding that all other ratings are listed alongside the Faith Equality Index. “If you are claiming to be the poster child for diversity inclusion, that is a glaring gap, because they are not specifically or intentionally including faith-driven consumers.”

Without any prompting, he offers to “make this relevant to your audience.” Being in the supply chain, “theatre owners have influence over what comes through the chain,” Stone asserts. “They have influence over what is produced because they are the conduit from which that film gets to the end consumer. So are theatre owners creating a demand? Are they reflecting consumer demand? And are they saying to Hollywood, ‘Hey, we want to see more of these faith- and family-friendly films’? This does not have to be about faith alone, it can be…something that I can go to with my whole family and watch.”

In support of his reasoning, Stone relays a personal experience from one year ago. “I live in a fairly big market, it’s a top-30 TV DMA. On Valentine’s Day last year, we decided to take the kids to seePaddington, which my family liked, and we reviewed well… When I got to the local Regal, they were sold out. Now, at the same time, there were probably 50 consecutive showings of Fifty Shades of Grey, everywhere. I mean, it was like every 30 minutes there was one starting... We had to drive 45 minutes to another Regal all the way across the county to see Paddington.”

While this is all too familiar to our way of doing multiplex business, “now, obviously,” Stone admits, “I have never seen anything like that. Somebody really wanted to push that film and that’s fine if they want to do that. But in doing so, they specifically excluded all of the people in the faith-driven consumer community. On that weekend you were not going to see a movie.” He adds that operators can work in whatever way they want. “It is their theatre. We simply say, ‘You left us out that day.’ It would have been nice had you included us in a more robust fashion, a more intentional fashion. So when we rate companies, Faith Driven Consumer looks whether these companies do things that matter to us. Just like they are doing for other communities that matter to them. So, is there a parity? Are we included in the diversity rainbow?”

Elaborating on the supply-chain analogy, movie theatres as well as stores are driven by the product. They are only going to put on their shelves what sells and they will give the most shelf space to whatever sells most. Even if some people want a different type of product. “Do you think that Wal-Mart influences what Procter & Gamble produces?” Stone asks FJI in turn. “Regal or any of the others, they have that same influence because the theatre is the gatekeeper to the audience. Until it gets to post-theatrical distribution, the theatre controls the access.”

There is demand, he knows. “We have proven that Hollywood is meeting the demand, and sometimes they do it better than at other times. Our position at Faith Driven Consumer is to encourage our people to reward good behavior… We encourage people to go out and watch something. Don’t wait for it to come to Netflix, go watch it. Reward the theatre, vote with your wallet.” By contrast, calls for boycotts are a “great disincentive for them to produce more, because they do not want the negative aspect of that. Encourage them and tell them how they could do better.”

And better it gets. When we concluded our exclusive conversation with Stone, both Risen and Race had just opened, and at least one of them most decidedly delivered on the promise of bringing back, yet again, faith-driven moviegoers. Normally, we would wonder about the wisdom of putting both films in a race against each other on the same release date. Let’s take it as a sign of changing times instead. With Miracles from Heaven, The Young Messiah and God’s Not Dead 2 also scheduled to be released in movie theatres across the country by the time most of you will have this magazine in your hands, Hollywood seems to have broadened its reach. Even if movie theatres will have a harder time fitting all the films in.

For Stone, whether this unprecedented lineup of faith-based films will be successful goes beyond the timing. Their stories have to be authentic in the message that they are conveying. “When you have authenticity, even if it is extra-biblical, then it resonates,” he believes. As Risen was deemed “at long last the movie we’ve all been waiting for,” Noah and Exodus were not—rather famously, as the work of Faith Driven Consumer demonstrated. “We had a lot to say,” Stone admits. “And frankly, those comments probably cost the studios millions and millions of dollars, but it wasn’t because we were saying, ‘This is a bad movie, don’t go see it.’ We said very kindly before it ever came out and through the release that this movie is not going to do well because it does not speak to the core audience.”

Both of the stories depicted in these films are “central to the biblical narrative” and convey “absolutely pivotal moments,” he elaborates. And the extra-biblical information that was filled in by the filmmakers was not authentic. “It was not in keeping with the theology or the reason why,” Stone contends. “There is the What of the story, there is the How of the story, and they both hit those reasonably well. But on the Why…the purpose of those two movies was off. Now Risen, again that is extra-biblical, but it is authentic, it is plausible. If you were to look through the eyes of a follower of Christ in that time, you can see that happening… This is a plausible, authentic story of people who Jesus encountered and that encounter caused changes to their life.”

The Young Messiah is going to have that same kind of challenge, Stone foresees. “There is really very little biblical account of Jesus in that gap between him as a young boy–and I want to say at the beginning of his ministry–and they are going to have to fill in that gap. If it is authentic, it will work…” By contrast, “when you deviate from their faith story, they are going to see it coming. Consumers today are very sophisticated. There is so much information available and they are well-educated. Consumers know the difference between junk and quality. They know what matters to them… They know their Bible because it is a central part of their life and they are sophisticated consumers as it is. So the answer to your question, I gave you a lot of background, but the answer is simple: These types of films will not be successful unless they are authentic. That’s the key driver.”

The other driving force, Stone knows, is that distributors of faith-based films “need to have enough P&A money to support the launch, especially in a crowded field. What we see is people who try to open too many theatres with too little money. And typically these faith-based films are not tentpoles. They are not even carrying a substantial budget…and you have to let word of mouth, social media and the press work.”

From the very beginnings in their work educating businesses about the faith-based consumer and relating their interests and background and buying power and why they are important as consumers, Stone and his team have always included films and entertainment. The answer why is simple. “First of all, entertainment drives culture,” he responds. “People watch and think that they decide the culture, but they really are the tail that the dog wags. At Faith Driven Consumer, we focus on entertainment and the marketplace, because those are the major culture changes that we see. There are family and education and there is the church, but they are outside of our reach. Entertainment and the marketplace, that’s where people spend the bulk of their time and money. You can tell what is important to somebody by their calendar and their checkbook.”

To be continued in next month’s Film Journal International.