“Take Five”- Faith & Film – By Charlie F. Caine
The Goldsboro Entertainment Dispatch – September 8, 2015
If you want to be number one at the box office, the best bet is for that to happen on opening weekend. It is rare, quite rare, for a film to move up into that position in later weeks. Last weekend filmgoers were exposed to something uncommon in Hollywood as the faith-based drama “War Room” knocked off the NWA biopic “Straight Outta Compton” for the number one slot (after opening at number two a week earlier).
“War Room” was produced with a $3 million budget by Georgia filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, while earning nearly $30 million by the end of the second weekend. That is a financial success in anyone’s books. But why was it so successful? And will other films like this find the same monetary success in the future? We decided to ask that question (and four others) to film critic (and Goldsboro native) Noel T. Manning II in this week’s “Take Five.”
Take one – Caine: Noel, How does a faith-based film like “War Room” find a way to do so well in theaters with mainstream audiences?
Manning: Actually I think it was successful for the target audiences, the Church. Christian filmmakers like the Kendrick Brothers understand this demographic (even when Hollywood doesn’t), and they know how to reach them. They go directly to those who are yearning for films of faith, and movies that will provide encouragement and support for the Christian walk. They utilize direct church outreach marketing (program inserts, posters, preview screenings); they spend time on Christian talk shows (television, radio and online) promoting the films; they spend dollars on Christian online media; and they build a strong social media presence. The simple answer is that the Kendrick Brothers know how to deliver to this select market. They’ve already had box office success with films like “Fireproof” and “Courageous”, so they know what the audience expects. While the quality of these types of films may not measure to mainstream critics, that’s not the purpose of them. That’s not the director’s intent.
Take two – Caine: You just mentioned mainstream critics. Can you elaborate on why films like “War Room” or other faith-based films may receive lackluster, or poor reviews from critics?
Manning: The only approvals these filmmakers really need are those of the target audience. Those are the people who will go see a film like this in a theatre, and then go tell their friends. Churches will bring their entire youth groups, Sunday school classes, or in some areas entire congregations. Critical response from the mainstream doesn’t really matter. The critics who provide negative reviews for films like “War Room” don’t get it. Many don’t understand the Christian audience, and what they need or want. If you don’t understand something like that, it makes it difficult to judge it for what it is.
I will admit that in some Christian films that the quality has suffered in either acting, directing, or the technical aspects of filmmaking. But think about it, when you’ve only got a couple of million dollars to work with compared to the tens of millions or the hundreds of millions that studios pour into most films today for big name stars or directors, it is difficult to compare the two. These are different kinds of films and should be judged as so. I’m not saying don’t expect quality, but what I’m saying is judge them for what they are (and who they’re made for). Most film critics don’t view these kinds of movies on a regular basis, so they don’t really know the audience, and that makes if difficult to critique. I talk to my film students about baggage and bias. We all have that for certain films (positive or negative) and as long as we acknowledge that we’re ok. But I think it is difficult for some film critics to admit when they don’t get something, or to admit that certain films (or genres) aren’t something they’re drawn to. I think admitting that you don’t really understand something can be extremely difficult, especially for critics.
Take three –Caine: I’ve heard the terms faith-based films, biblical films, and faith-friendly films, but also you mentioned the term Christian films. What’s the difference?
Manning: Great question. I used the term Christian films because most faith-based films in the U.S. are produced for those of the Christian faith. You can think of biblical films as stories representing the heroes (and situations) of the old and new testaments of the Holy Bible. These types of stories are far reaching even beyond faith audiences because many of them are wrought with characters facing live-changing conflicts and crisis situations. In the 1950s you had The Robe, Ben Hur, David and Bathsheba, and the Ten Commandments all with major Hollywood stars. These are the films with major budgets, large casts, and mass appeal because of the story combined with the stars. These types of films have continued to be produced throughout the decades; including animated versions like the Prince of Egypt in 1998 and Joseph: King of Dreams in 2000. Where these films encounter problems is if they stray too far from the biblical text. Those of the Christian and Jewish faiths have criticized these films when directors choose to add to the stories for sake of pure
entertainment purposes. Noah starring Russell Crowe and Exodus: Gods and Kings starring Christian Bale both received negative feedback from the church-going audiences for lack of scriptural authenticity. It turned off that audience, and that had an impact on the box office. The church can have a tremendous influence on these films, and if Hollywood would think about that more, it may pay dividends for them financially. In 2004 Oscar winner Mel Gibson tried to get studio backing for his pet project “The Passion of the Christ.” The studios said no, so he found a way to make it happen. That film ended up becoming the most successful independent
film of all time (up to that point) making over $600 million worldwide. The studios who turned down Gibson beat their heads against the wall after that one, and once they realized this market could benefit them, they began creating faith film divisions. Fox launched one in 2006 and a year later Sony did as well.
Faith-based films on the other hand are those produced with the church-goers in mind, like films from the Kendrick Brothers or North Carolina based filmmaker Gary Wheeler. Of course the filmmakers hope to make their money back (and they usually do), but these films are also ministry tools and can provide opportunities for Christian growth. Films like “God’s Not Dead” can also fall into this category. Even films like the “Left Behind” remake with Nicholas Cage will usually only appeal to Christians because of the subject matter.
Then you have films that provide elements or virtues of Christianity that appeal to these audiences as well. Film with themes of good vs. evil, sacrifice, redemption, service above self, reconciliation, faith, hope, facing doubt or fear, and finding courage all provide topics that can connect to these audiences. Honestly, there are many films with these subjects that can speak to Christians and non-Christians alike. These types of films can be found in any genre from science fiction to comedy to action/adventure.
Manning: Those are all films with faith-messages. But they definitely weren’t created for church outreach or bible study groups. But the messages in those films are pretty powerful for the Christian walk if you take a moment to think about it. In “Oh God” we’re reminded that we have the power to make this world a better place, God gave us the tools to provide a happy ending to our own story. “Leap of Faith” provides a character study on transformation and self-forgiveness, while “Bruce Almighty” addresses surrendering our selfish desires, developing patience, and realizing that God wants a relationship with his creation. These are all powerful messages, and in my opinion worthy of bible study. But many times films like these are criticized by the church as blasphemy or seen as a parody of religion in general (and that’s even before the films are even screened). But my take is that God can use any film, any music, any TV show, and artform in general to bring people to Him. God knows no boundaries, it’s humans who provide the roadblocks and the walls and borders.
Take Five – Caine: What’s the future for films of faith?
Manning: Studios and independents will continue to make these films. I don’t see that slowing down; I actually see it ramping up. The main challenge for these films though is the lack of wide-spread international appeal. These films make most (if not all) their money in the U.S. But strategic distribution placement, targeted marketing, and limited budgets will definitely provide avenues for financial gain and ministry opportunities. “War Room” at this rate will probably make over $50 million at the box office, and Hollywood continues to release larger budget biblical epics like “Risen” and the remake of “Ben Hur.” If the audience for these films exists, you can bet that someone will find ways to make them.
*Take Five is an occasional column focusing on pop culture and entertainment with interviews from industry insiders, experts, and irregular people. We ask five questions and we take five answers.
**This piece is published by permission from Charlie F. Caine and The Goldsboro Entertainment Dispatch
For additional information on faith-driven films check out the following resources:
Brumley, J. (2014, September 12). Baptist film critics: Christian films and audiences must evolve. Retrieved from https://baptistnews.com/article/baptist-film-critics-christian-films-must-evolve-mature/#.WA4NijKZNTY
Baptist News Global
Lang, B. (2015, August 30). How ‘War Room’ became a Biblical box office smash | variety. Retrieved from http://variety.com/2015/film/news/war-room-box-office-religious-1201581455/
Nelson, E. (2014, October 3). Lights! camera! Jesus! how Christians are building their own Hollywood. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/02/christian-film-left-behind-nicolas-cage_n_5901280.html
Rudder, R. (2012, January 24). The future of faith-based films. Retrieved from http://www.charismanews.com/culture/32352-the-future-of-faith-based-films
Shone, T. (2014, 31). A movie miracle: how Hollywood found religion | film. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jul/31/-sp-faith-films-hollywood-religion-christian-noah-heaven-is-real-bible