Let there be light: Theatre owners become believers in box-office power of faith-based films

When the faith-based movie Facing the Giants earned $10 million in 2006, Hollywood took notice. Then Fireproof topped that total, opening at number four in 2008 and going on to earn $33 million. Last year’s Courageous showed that not only could a faith-based movie earn over $30 million once, it could do it twice. The fatherhood-themed police drama also opened in fourth place, eventually earning $34 million, and then went on to become a number-one home-video release. The stories themselves wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood environment, but the plots hinge on a character’s embrace of God and Jesus. Facing the Giants is about an underdog football team that finally starts to win, but the team does it by embracing Christian values. In Fireproof, a couple’s marriage is only truly saved when the husband affirms his faith in Jesus Christ. Faith is not alluded to, but is a central part of the narrative.

Connecting to the faith-based audience requires reaching a demographic that may not always be plugged into the movie scene. “There’s an audience that likes to be entertained. And their definition of entertainment is not collisions and crashes and special effects. They like story; they live their lives by a set of values, and they expect their movies to depict those values. If they do, they’ll go out and see it,” explains Terrell Mayton, director of marketing for Carmike Cinemas.

Kris Fuhr, VP of marketing for Provident Films, which acquires and markets the release of faith-based films, says their movies are the most popular among those who describe themselves as evangelical Christians, though they also have a strong reach on the Catholic audience. Movies like The Mighty Macs, about a basketball team at a Catholic college, and pro-life drama October Baby are among the titles that have a particular appeal to that faith. Besides animated family films or PG-rated titles like Secretariat, many people Provident targets “don’t go to movies at all unless it’s a faith-based movie and they get a recommendation from their pastor or another ministry they trust,” observes Fuhr. That means that in order to get the audience to show up, Provident needs to engage church leaders and other influencers.

One way Provident Films connects with this audience is through a valuable database of pastors and others who are interested in faith-based films. Spreading word about a project doesn’t just involve e-mail blasts, but also creating and maintaining “strong relationships,” notes Fuhr. Besides buying media, circulating posters and all the “top-down” marketing, “we also create a bottom-up demand at the grassroots level,” Fuhr details. Visits to sets during production and advance screenings help key people feel included in the film. “We work hard to equip them to be ambassadors and evangelists about the film.”

Not only does Provident connect with key influencers, it gets them to buy advance tickets on a level usually only seen for movies like Twilight or the latest fanboy picture. “Ministries were the social network before Twitter or Facebook,” Mayton reflects. “They’ve always been viral.” Once Provident gets key people on board, they can spread the word, yielding incredible results. Courageous, which opened to $9.1 million, already had $2 million in advance ticket sales that weekend. Those numbers were partly driven by the “Take Action” section on the movie’s website, which encouraged people, no matter their connection to a church, to join a Courageous Action Squad. “Will your church step up and buy out a showtime, providing 200 to 250 tickets for your congregation and the people they influence?” one bullet point asked. Another offered an option to gather a smaller group. “Will you personally purchase 25 tickets for the people in your neighborhood, Sunday school class, or couples small group?” One reason advance ticket sales work so well for faith-based movies is that people are not only seeking a communal, event experience, surrounded by like-minded people—those of faith also see screenings as an instrument of conversion.

Faith-based movies are “not just a piece of entertainment, but a tool you might share with someone,” explains Fuhr. “You might not be able to say to someone, ‘Gosh, I see you’ve been having problems with your marriage,’ but you can give them a copy of Fireproof and hope that they’ll find something in there that would help them.” When Provident’s movies come out on DVD, “people buy one for themselves and buy one to give to someone,” explains Fuhr, noting that the same pattern was seen back when The Passion of the Christ debuted. Mayton compares the movies to a form of missionary work, a more subtle one that doesn’t involve knocking on doors and distributing pamphlets. They offer a “demonstration of a slice of life, a story that demonstrates proof of concept, if you will. It’s a way of spreading the message.”

While advance ticket sales help Provident’s films debut in the top ten, the movies usually play well beyond their opening weekends. For director Alex Kendrick’s Fireproof, the opening weekend accounted for just 13% of its box-office total. For his Courageous, it was 27%. “There are waves of involvement,” Mayton explains. “There are early adopters, people who clearly know about it and engage with it early. Then there are the ones that picked up on it later through word of mouth, Bible study, men’s groups, women’s groups, small groups. Word spreads. Then it reaches out in the broader community, friends and neighbors who aren’t as engaged in the ministry, but they hear about this film that’s really interesting, they say we should go see it because it represents their definition of quality, and they pop in and take a look at it. There’s nothing more valuable than the endorsement of a friend.”
Christi Bonertz of Moses Lake, Washington, saw Fireproof with her husband and a friend when it came out in theatres. She heard about it from friends, then continued to spread the word, recommending it to other married Christian couples she thought might like the movie. Word of mouth also helps cut down on costs. “If you look at what these organizations put into producing and promoting these movies versus what they gross, it’s phenomenal,” Mayton says admiringly.

Provident, mindful that they are creating a brand, remains selective about the projects they take on. Their metric for success is high. “We watch a movie and we ask ourselves, ‘When someone sees this movie, are they going to be personally inspired, or are they going to be so inspired that they have to tell everyone they know to go see it?’ That’s ultimately what we’re looking for. We make movies that we think are life-changing for people,” Fuhr says. That selectivity means that followers of Provident’s content may have to wait a while in between films. They have a couple of projects percolating now, but it is unlikely they will get through post-production and marketing fast enough to see a 2013 release.

Mayton sees faith-based releases as another chance for Carmike to give audiences who may not be regular moviegoers a great guest experience, and make them want to come back. If Carmike can bring viewers who normally see only faith-based movies back to the theatre just one more time, “you double the audience. Look at the expanded business opportunity. You’ve sold another ticket, provided concessions, and per-caps increase.”
Carmike also has proprietary lists that allow them to message guests who, for example, may like Christian music and also be interested in a faith-based film. Their rewards program tracks the purchasing trends of their guests, allowing them to deliver targeted messaging that will better match up a viewer with an appropriate film. “We always work to connect the dots to make sure that if someone comes in for a faith-based movie, they know we have other movies that are family-oriented or have a message they’ll enjoy.” Carmike, “known for being a hometown theatre in medium-sized cities,” has a circuit imprint that includes “traditional Bible Belt cities like Nashville, or cities in Georgia like Franklin, Athens and Atlanta. Clearly you’re going to do well with faith-based content.” Even outside the Bible Belt, the films also play well, he notes.

Word of mouth has always been important for Provident’s films, but only recently has social networking become a tool for increasing awareness. The Facebook presence for Courageous was much larger than that of Fireproof, according to Fuhr. “It’s been exciting over the past two years to really be able to use social networking. Before we were doing a lot of word of mouth. A lot of our films are especially appealing to women, and women are such strong drivers of Facebook.” The Facebook pages for Courageous , which came out in September 2011, and October Baby, which released in March this year after a test run in October 2011, are still extremely active. October Baby’s page shows a slow build that crested with last March’s release, where posts regularly received 1,000 to 2,000 “Likes.”

“There’s such a conversation that occurs around our films after they come out,” Fuhr marvels. “On Fireproof, we heard literally from tens of thousands of people who were going to get divorced and didn’t. People who were divorced for years, even for a decade or two, who reconnected and remarried after they saw Fireproof. In Courageous, we hear from dads all the time about how they realized it’s not about them, it’s about spending time with their kids and families. When we did October Baby, we heard about people who saw it and decided not to have an abortion.” These stories make their way onto sites like Facebook, garnering more “Likes,” comments, and support for the films.

While Provident operates outside the Hollywood studio system, their string of successes has given them respect in the industry—if not also a bit of befuddlement at their marketing prowess. “I had a meeting with a pretty big production company a few weeks ago,” recalls Fuhr, “and they were laughing, saying they love it when our movies come out because on Saturday morning, everyone’s like, ‘Who are these people and how did they do this?’ Because we operate outside the studio system, people don’t understand what we do, but we have been with this audience for a long time now, and we are part of the audience we market to.”

Provident Films does not release its own movies, but teams up with distributors like TriStar and Samuel Goldwyn. Provident will acquire a project anywhere from the script stage to a rough cut. Then they handle the marketing of a release, while the distributor partner will handle booking and exhibitor relations. Provident Films may be perceived as being outside the mainstream, in part because of the religious audience it targets, but it’s actually part of Sony. The company is an offshoot of Provident Music Group, a Nashville-based division of Sony that has long focused on reaching consumers of Christian music. The company’s leaders, including Fuhr, are not lifers in the movie business. Fuhr previously worked as an executive at Kraft Foods and graduated from West Point. Some of her military training persists in her work as a marketer. “I’m always a keen observer of the competition. In the military it’s very important to know your enemy. Not that I consider every movie to be my enemy, but I do make it a habit to study the marketing campaigns of other films with great detail.”

Provident has worked multiple times with Sherwood Pictures, the volunteer production company based out of a church in Georgia. “We really try to work with filmmakers where it’s not a ‘one-off’ for them, but where we think they’re dedicated to developing a body of work that will be impactful.” There’s a reason for maintaining relationships with filmmakers. Although Provident has 18 films in its library, the biggest hits have been from Sherwood Pictures.

Provident’s close relationship with its Christian audience—and Christian filmmakers—helps it balance its religious message with entertainment. “I think where a lot of other films fall down trying to appeal to our audience is they try to make it more medicine than entertainment.” Fuhr’s team also avoids engaging people out of a sense of obligation. Potential viewers should never feel like it’s their duty to go out and support a movie just because it’s Christian. “At the end of the day, you ask a lot of people. You want them to leave their living room, pay $10. We want to make sure we make it a worthwhile and entertaining experience for them. I always say there’s nothing harder than to get people to leave their living room to buy a movie ticket.”

These movies owe part of their success to the fact that they’re made, marketed and consumed by the same faithful audience. If there is a formula, it might be distilled to this: “Authentic stories about everyday people,” Fuhr sums up. Hollywood escapism doesn’t fly. “They’re not looking for an imaginary, aspirational story. The audience really looks for people they relate to, and seeing them living their lives faithfully.”