The recent success of Christian films like “Seven Days in Utopia” and "Machine Gun Preacher" has movie industry insiders asking the question, “Are Evangelicals Saving Hollywood?” Or better yet, what does the mainstream acceptance of recent Christian films say about the faith-based movie business?
In an article titled “Not My Mother’s Christian Film”, writer Anne Morse explores how faith-based films have evolved over the years. She recounts seeing an influential yet subdued "The Cross and the Switchblade" in 1970 and compares it with her recent view of the gritty and bold "Machine Gun Preacher" that lived up to its ‘R’ rating with profanity, graphic violence and on-screen sexuality.
Morse writes, “The new kind of Christian film is partly about a growing sophistication among Christians carving out film careers after half a century of the Church rejecting everything Hollywood stands for.”
Erik Lokkesmoe, co-founder of Different Drummer, a film-marketing company that mobilizes fans and audiences told the National Review Online that it’s a shift within the Americanization of Christianity.
“This audience is looking for honesty and storytelling, and they’re looking for characters they can identify with,” he notes.
“They’re looking for films that end with no nicely wrapped-up solutions; they want ambiguity - the type of films they can have a conversation about with their friends,” he said in National Review Online.
Another faith-based film that’s garnering mainstream attention is “Seven Days in Utopia”, a big screen story about the beloved golf game used as a metaphor for life, family, work, and faith. Based on David L. Cook’s novel Golf’s Sacred Journey, the film has mainstream movie buffs buzzing that the merge of evangelism and Hollywood is here to stay.
Part of the attention surrounding “Seven Days in Utopia” comes from the movie’s Oscar-worthy cast. There’s Melissa Leo who took home an Academy Award last year for portraying the brash, hair-sprayed matriarch in “The Fighter.” There’s also Lucas Black (Fast and the Furious) and veteran actor Robert Duvall who plays a religious prudent with a questionable past.
Duvall told the Huffington Post, “They didn’t know which way they wanted to go with this film. I said, there’s only one Jesus Christ, (so) give me some faults, and give me some obstacles.”
Big names playing relatable characters aren’t the only reason faith-based films are making headlines. Box office sales are influencing the buzz on Christian movies as well.
Financial success for faith-based movies like the $370 million earned from 2004’s “Passion of the Christ” has entertainment executives and actors wondering if religious content could continue to skyrocket film sales.
However, box office success and faith subject matter are not mutually exclusive.
The Huffington Post asked Duvall why an established actor like him would take on a faith film like “Seven Days.”
“It was a good deal, they were going to pay me good money,” Duvall who previously starred in the “Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” told the Huffington Post.
However, an impressive cast and anticipated income can only go so far. According to Meyer Gottlieb, the president of Samuel Goldwyn Films, some moviemakers trying to tap into the sizable Christian audience have to be careful.
“You can’t just call a picture a faith film and think that the faith audience is going to show up,” he said in the Huffington Post.
According to Gottlieg, the evangelical community has been dramatically under-served by traditional Hollywood movies.
Faith-based films are very different than of a studio film. The movies targeted to evangelical communities have premieres concentrated in the Midwest and the South, instead of in New York and Los Angeles.
Similar to many Christian films, “Seven Days in Utopia” had an organic following that grew into a grass-roots success. When Cook was unable to find a publisher for his book, he put his manuscript on the Internet for free.
“It took off like wildfire,” he said. Eventually, the book was sold in packs of 10 and ended up on the best-seller list.
In his opinion of the achievement of “Machine Gun Preacher” in NRO, Lookesome said it’s about what a viewer feels after a movie. He said, “Films like this tap into stories that reflect common grace, so that when people leave the theater, “they’re haunted by something bigger than themselves.”