Sam Goldwyn, founder of MGM Studios, was fond of saying, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union!” Thus did he quash the notion that film was for anything but entertainment.
But Pastor Richard Edgar of the inter-denominational Pentecostal Reality Gospel Church in Alexandria, Virginia, has his own “message for Hollywood.” If studios want the faith community to buy their films, make “good, wholesome entertainment.”
Many like Edgar see a Hollywood that, since the late 1960s demise of the “production code,” has largely produced films out-of-touch with ordinary Americans’ moral sensibilities.
Lately, Hollywood seems to be responding.
And, they’re not using Western Union but rather the vast web of mega-churches that have recently sprung up across America, to screen faith-filled films. Whereas 25 years ago fewer than 50 churches nationally attracted 2,000 people each week, today more than 1,200 churches attract such large gatherings. Then, there are the 2000 relatively smaller churches like Reality Gospel Church, founded in a bowling alley in downtown Alexandria in 1955, that, taken together, pack real punch.
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The faithful are flocking to Hollywood films previewed in the same theatre-style churches with professional sound and large-screen projection systems and comfortable theatre-style seats, where they attend services each week; and they generate a huge “buzz.” Buena Vista Pictures’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with its Christian allegorical message, is a case in point. After the film was previewed on the faith circuit, Narnia’s opening weekend (December 9-11, 2005) saw an impressive $67.1 million at the U.S. box office; as of May 5th the film had grossed a respectable $291,709,845.
The strategy was first employed by Mel Gibson when, in 2004, during the run-up to release of his critically acclaimed film, The Passion of The Christ, he previewed it for faith communities nationwide. While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snubbed him at Oscar time, his greatest prize was the positive view from the pew. Opening weekend the film grossed an impressive $83.3 million in ticket sales, with worldwide sales to date standing at $604,370,943 plus over $200 million in theatrical rentals, representing more than 25 times its budget.
Taking Gibson’s marketing strategy one step further, Sony’s Christian-themed Left Behind: The War at World, starring Lou Gossett, Jr. — the third in a series based on the best-selling novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins — was only screened to faith flocks, who had previously snapped up 70 million copies of the novels. They responded by purchasing/renting $4.8 million worth of videos, with even more DVD sales expected. (DVDs currently account for 80% of industry sales.)
Pastor Edgar said he screened Left Behind to a packed house, noting it had created quite a “buzz,” and is “looking at” screening more films, whether overtly spiritual or not. His goal, he said, is not profits but the conversion of souls and, in fact, he only asks for an offering at screenings.
As to whether the faith community will actually "buy" uplifting, all-American films without specific spiritual content is an open question.
Madison, starring Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of The Christ, may be a barometer in this regard. Directed by Bill and Scott Bindley, the film is about Madison, Indiana’s climb back to economic vitality in the ’70s when they dared compete and win in the regional hydroplane championship. Released in April 2005 by MGM (the studio’s very last pre-Sony release), Madison was the third highest grossing film in the U.S. its first weekend. Yet, in spite of marketing efforts by Motives Marketing, the same company that previewed The Passion of The Christ to churches nationwide, Madison, Bindley said, never quite gained traction in the faith community. Regardless, such outreach, he said, is an important element of any smart marketing strategy, particularly for films with a specific spiritual focus.
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As for the hope that Hollywood, in turn, is finally starting to make more “family-friendly” films, Bindley said this genre is a Hollywood staple, the most recent wave starting with Home Alone in 1990. Bindley, himself, is currently directing two family comedies — Say Uncle and The Greatest Escape, produced by Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures, respectively.
But, then, “family-friendly” is also a term adopted by those who translate it to mean “morally uplifting” and “wholesome.” By that standard, Hollywood has only yet begun the conversion process.