The new film "Son of God," a Jesus-focused adaptation of last year's miniseries "The Bible," earned $26.5 million in a second place win at the box office this past weekend. Christian reviewers celebrated the success, calling it a "miracle," but warned that it will not suddenly convert Hollywood.
"Son of God brought in 26 million dollars in its first week – that's a miracle!" declared Dan Gainor, vice president of business and culture for the Media Research Center. Gainor praised the efforts of Director Roma Downey, but emphasized that even this big success will likely fail to "wake Hollywood up" to the massive opportunity in more faith-centered films.
Chris Stone, founder of online Christian community Faith Driven Consumer, claimed the success of "Son of God" as proof of the viability of entertainment targeted to a faith audience. "We consider it a proof point that Hollywood can make money with a product that appeals to faith-driven consumers," Stone declared.
Gary Schneeberger, senior vice president of Publicity and Communications at Grace Hill Media, compared "Son of God" with other Christian movies, such as "Courageous," "Fireproof," "Facing the Giants," and "Left Behind." Schneeberger counted up the weekend box office performances of each – totaling $19.4 million, and compared it to the release of "Son of God" – $26.5 million. "What separates 'Son of God' from these movies is that Mark [Burnett] and Roma [Downey] are not churches, but people working in the entertainment industry."
Second Place an Impressive Finish?
Stone compared the film to "Non-Stop," the weekend's first place box office winner, which features Liam Neeson. "Non-Stop is a new mainstream action film, 'Son of God' is much more of a niche movie, and an encapsulation of what has come before," Stone noted. Nevertheless, the faith film's $26.5 million came in close behind the action flick's $30 million.
"It is a narrow market, yet it did almost as well," Stone declared. He noted that "Son of God's" audience – 62 percent female and 82 percent over 25 – fits the demographics of his organization's community. Stone thanked the producers for providing a movie his community can support so well.
"$26.5 million in the last week in February – it should be considered a success," declared Paul Asay, senior associate editor of Focus on the Family's Plugged In movie review site. Asay noted that January and February are difficult months for Hollywood to attract customers, and that Liam Neeson's films do surprisingly well during the early months of the year. "I was expecting Non-Stop to win," the reviewer explained, but he said the results for "Son of God" proved a welcome surprise.
Jerry Johnson, president and CEO of the National Religious Broadcasters, also emphasized the draw of Neeson. "Liam Neeson is a name-brand action figure," he noted. "There isn't that level of an actor in Son of God, and it's almost a tie."
Schneeberger praised the actors in "Son of God," but also acknowledged their shortcomings when it comes to competing with bigger names. "As solid as the actors are, they don't bring a big draw" compared to Liam Neeson.
A Competent Film
"It was a very competent narration of Jesus' life," Asay said, praising the film and claiming that "it fulfills audience expectations." The reviewer praised the film's quality, arguing that it outperformed other notable Christian films like "Fireproof." He called it more evidence that "Christian moviemaking is getting stronger every year."
Asay did note, however, that "Son of God" fails to achieve the spectacular success of "Passion of the Christ." He called Passion "a genre breaker, both very respectful and very personal to Mel Gibson's view – it speaks to Mel Gibson's ability to craft a movie." This new Jesus film, despite its competence as a movie, failed to strike him like "The Passion" did, Asay explained.
Johnson argued that, compared to "Non-Stop," "'Son of God' is broader and deeper in terms of its appeal and its audience." He mentioned films like "Courageous" and "Fireproof," which did not outperform mainstream blockbusters, but continued to attract viewers for a long period of time. Like those films, Johnson said he anticipates "a level of staying power" for "Son of God."
An Evangelistic Tool?
"There are people who went into movie theaters Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, who did not have a relationship with Jesus, but who spoke to their friends after seeing the movie, and now have a relationship with Jesus," Schneeberger said. He argued that the box office success of "Son of God" matters far less than this evangelism, which "is what makes today a really special day."
Asay disagreed, however. "This doesn't look like an evangelistic tool as much as it is a very familiar story told in a slightly different way on a slightly bigger screen," he argued. The reviewer claimed that "Son of God" has a "Christian feel," and naturally appeals to those who already believe in Jesus.
Alex Wainer, associate professor of Communication and Media Studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, explained that "Evangelicals still hope for the Hollywood miracle, when one of their Bible stories preaches the word in cineplexes resulting in conversions." This mass conversion, however, "didn't happen for 'The Passion' ten years ago and won't this time."
Wainer also advised caution when considering the success of "Son of God." He argued that "26.5 million isn't embarrassing but it's not miraculous either." Christians should not see this one film as evidence that Hollywood will suddenly embrace their goals wholesale. "We should abandon hopes that Hollywood will, to paraphrase Sally Fields, 'like us, really like us.'"
Barbara Nicolosi Harrington, executive director of the Gallileo Forum at Azusa Pacific University, explained that "Son of God is no 'Passion of the Christ,' which brought in more than $64 million in its first three days." She argued that the biggest weakness of the recent Jesus film is the news "that this movie was basically just the Jesus parts from the cable series 'The Bible' retooled." Would-be movie goers likely grew annoyed that they would have to pay $15 for a film they had already seen on TV.
Harrington also described the film as "pedestrian," noting its 30 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. She also noted that the release date, a week before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, might have given the film a larger audience.