Did Christian Movies Make A Splash In 2014?
When my family went to the movies this holiday season, we were faced with several choices. Among them was a film named Exodus, a retelling of the Biblical exodus from Egypt of the Israelites under the leadership of Moses. I admit, I was interested in it. But is that the one we went to see? Nope. Instead, we laid down our money to see the final Hobbit movie.
Rebecca reviewed the Hobbit movie here on SpecFaith yesterday.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who, given that choice, stood in line for the Hobbit movie.
According to IMDb, Exodus, with an estimated budget of $140 million, raked in $24.5 million on opening weekend and a little over $53 million as of the 26th. It will be doing good to surpass the box office of “God is Not Dead” earlier this year which ended up just over $60 million. That equates to a big fail given its budget.
Scott Mendelson had the following to say about Exodus:
But there is something weirdly fitting of one of the worst films of the year being one of the year’s biggest flops, especially in a year basically lacking in mega-budget disasters on this scale.
Not having seen it, I can’t confirm his opinion of the film. That said, despite 2014 being a banner year for “faith-based” films, Exodus is an bookend on a series of less-than-successful Christian-themed movies. So much so that Christian-themed films as a group garnered a spot in io9’s “Top 10 Harshest Lessons That 2014 Has Taught The Entertainment Industry” article:
5. You can’t make a tentpole Bible movie that pulls in Christian audiences
This was the year of the religious epic, and it seemed as though the lucrative Christian audience mostly stayed away. Aronofsky’s Noah did okay, not quite making back its production costs in the U.S. but probably breaking even in worldwide receipts. But the Left Behind remake starring Nic Cage seems to have gotten (sorry) left behind. And Ridley Scott’s Exodus has joined his Robin Hood in the ranks of lavish costumed dramas that crashed and burned, at least domestically.
This doesn’t even consider the more overtly Christian movies like God is Not Dead.
Why did the “lucrative Christian audience” stay home for these movies?
It probably varied with the movie. I know there was a lot of negative press about Noah because it didn’t faithfully follow the Biblical account, and that probably hurt its Christian audience sales. I don’t know about Left Behind but I think while the books had a market, it wasn’t on Christian’s list to see the movie version. Aside from some lackluster content in Exodus, I think its biggest problem was going up against the Hobbit.
Interestingly enough, the one movie not specifically labeled a Christian movie, but many Christians do think of it as one since its author is a Christian, is The Hobbit by Tolkien. If you include that one, then one Christian movie did end up a blockbuster in 2014.
But it isn’t considered a Christian movie because there is no overt Biblical story being told, nobody converting to Christ, or quoting Bible verses. Just a world grounded in Christian values and a gripping story.
In the end, it may spell the end for more epic Christian movies in 2015.
With the dismal showings this year, people will be less willing to plunk down money to make them. This Hobbit movie is the last of Tolkien’s stories to put to film (but you never know when Hollywood will decide it’s time to do a remake of LOTR). It seems the Narnia films ran out of steam, but could be revived. The Silver Chair I think would innately make a good movie without major modifications.
It may mean most of what we have to look forward to is more like God is Not Dead. But major Hollywood productions of Christian-themed movies may indeed be dead. At least for the time being.
Where do you think the direction of Christian-themed movies will go for 2015?
Although I haven’t watched Noah or Exodus either, I’ve heard enough to be thankful they did horrible in the box office. Despite being based off a “Christian” story, it sounds like the story was mostly mutilated and the character of God twisted. If that’s the only sort of Christian-themed movie Hollywood will make, then it’s better if they don’t make it.
What I would like to see is more Christian themed movies with the quality of The Nativity Story. Granted, they followed some traditional ideals of that night, but the movie still captured the beauty, pain, and wonder of the birth of Christ.
Noah, as a movie, was of a very high quality. The Nativity Story was good but not great (eg. too sanitized but Joseph was well portrayed). The former story borrowed far more from Midrash (Rabbinic arguments and traditions) than from the Genesis account itself. But at least the director believed in the story, the characters and was passionate about the project (and even included a global flood and an ark of biblical proportions). Noah could be best described as a weird hybrid of two very different genres. In many ways it was a disturbing psychological thriller and in other ways it was very much a powerful philosophical debate on the nature of God, mankind, the power of sin, redemption etc. Noah wasn’t an easy movie to watch, but it was a great (if flawed) cinematic piece and God really spoke to me through it.
The reason Noah and Exodus did not appeal to the Christian audience is the same reason The DaVince Code didn’t. They were not Christian movies. I haven’t seen Exodus yet, but I did see Noah and except for there being a flood and an ark and Noah having three sons, there was pretty much no resemblance to the Biblical story. Noah comes off like a crazed fundamentalist being tempered by his “reasonable” (mostly unbelieving) wife, who threatens him with divorce to get him to comply with her “reason”.
A friend did go see Exodus and his report was that “Moses doesn’t believe in God” and “He’s a terrorist for most of the movie” and “God comes off like Allah — vengeful”. His final analysis was that “Exodus is a manipulative movie through which the director is trying to make statements about our modern times.”
The Left Behind movie was a remake with bigger named stars. Yawn!
God is Not Dead had the usual production values of a low-budget film David RR White film, but it was better done than many Christian films.
So, yeah, Christians are staying away. If Hollywood gave us compelling stories that also had an actual Christian theme we might show up, but they feel this need to take Biblical stories and change them into something unrecognizable and then call it a “Christian” movie. Phew!
And yet, compared with Left Behind the “Christian movie” …
I don’t entirely get this…
Just because a movie or story has Bible in it doesn’t mean the Biblical message or meaning isn’t twisted by the movie-makers.
Compare also with current box office success Unbroken. While not an explicitly Christian film, it is the story of a Christian, and is filled with Christian themes. Boxofficemojo.com wrote: “The marketing campaign emphasized the redemptive elements of the story, which likely connected with Christian moviegoers.” They even tried to spin a story about Angelina Jolie praying on set for a break in the weather and getting it.
What’s the difference between this and Noah + Exodus? The latter two did everything they could to discourage the faithful by constantly ridiculing the source material. They were trying to appeal to non-Christian moviegoers instead and it backfired.
It’s all about the marketing.
Just going by box office results, Unbroken didn’t fair any better against the Hobbit either. Just over $31.5 million for opening day and as of Dec. 26th, has grossed a little over $47 million. I don’t know what its budget is, so maybe it will earn out, but based on ticket sales, the volume of people going to see Unbroken wasn’t that much different than Exodus.
But if Exodus did what Noah did in regards to not sticking very closely to the Biblical account, that is probably what did it in, though I’ve heard very little talk about Exodus. When you’re portraying a Biblical event, it at least needs to be close to the Biblical account or it will turn Christians away. Just making a movie based on the Bible isn’t enough to draw Christians to see it, it has to be at least somewhat accurate.
But I think the issue is that Hollywood is married to a particular formula that gets them in trouble from time to time. The need for battles, conflict everywhere, spicing up the plot. So when they go to adapt a story to film, they know going in that it will not be exactly like the source material. They see people like Peter Jackson significantly changing source material and creating block busters, so they feel free to slice and dice too.
But it all depends on what those changes are and how big they deviate from the source material as to whether it will alienate those with a devotion to that source material.
For instance, with the Narnia movies, the first deviated some, but not a lot, the second added some material to make it more dramatic than it already was, people complained but still went to see it though only half as many as the first, and it retained the basic plot of the book. Then they made Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I knew they were going to have to do something different, because the book has no climatic battle scenes like the first two, but more of a series of stories that happen in route to their destination. They needed a compelling overarching narrative, they needed a primary villain. They needed more conflict. Hollywood screen writing demands it. And so it was added. But in doing so, the changes to the story were too much, and the movie underperformed even worse than Prince Caspian.
One could make the claim that the changes to the story line that people talked about is what sank the last two at the box office. Prince Caspian was the biggest money loser, as their budget was much higher in the wake of the success of LWW. It lost approximately $140 million.
But I still think the main reason Exodus and Unbroken didn’t fair as well was due to going up against the Hobbit, which was wildly popular. Opening weekend gross was $54.7 million (more than either Exodus or Unbroken did cumulative to date) and as of yesterday, gross sales of $175.5 million (in the USA), about another $75 million away from making budget which no doubt will be covered by ticket sales overseas. That’s despite Peter Jackson making some changes from the book. He obviously didn’t step too hard on the faithful’s toes to keep them away.
So I think a lot of it is more about Hollywood trying to make the story more tension-filled, more exciting, iow, to shoehorn it into their story formula. That tends to make big changes to some stories, especially Bible stories. They don’t anticipate that the Christian audience will be offended enough to stay away, and they foresake the “lucrative Christian audience.”
That, and going up against the Hobbit which is also a big draw for most Christians, is what did it in. After all, The Hobbit isn’t on the same plane as the Bible, so there is more leeway even among Christians for changes to the story line. The Bible is much more sacred in that regard, and deviation isn’t tolerated as readily.
Unbroken was forecast to earn around $25M for opening weekend – it made $47M. Exodus didn’t even make $25M. As of Monday, Unbroken hit $51M in 5 days, almost catching up with Exodus at $53M after 18 days. The volume is definitely different. And Exodus even had 5 days in theaters before The Hobbit arrived.
Yes, Exodus did have a little more time though I doubt for either film you’ll see much more movement on gross sales by this point other than what foreign markets bring in. That said, they are about neck and neck in gross ticket sales, within 10K of each other. Meanwhile The Hobbit as I last checked is around $150K, not even close. If the “lucrative Christian market” exists, apparently it is only around 50-60K strong, as none of the movies we’ve looked at gross much higher than that. Even the more overt ones. While a movie with a small budget can make that translate into a successful film, it’s no where near blockbuster status required for a full Hollywood budget. Which is why Unbroken may have earned out (IMDb didn’t state an estimated budget for it) but Exodus with an over $100K budget means it will certainly be considered a failure. But the point being based on ticket sales, they are about equal in how many people are going to see them.
I didn’t catch that Exodus came out earlier than the Hobbit. But, it was still playing alongside it. It was one of the options to pick from. If a Christian family only had time and funds to go to one movie, they may have decided to wait for the Hobbit. That was the choice I had, anyway when I decided to go to the theater.
Honestly, I could live without ‘Christian movies,’ without a moment of hesitation. Without Marvel movies….not quite so much. And as long as Christian filmmakers are primarily focused on making Christian films, on the worldview and not the story, we won’t get anything good. Tolkien said something once to the effect that one could make a drama about patients suffering radiation poisoning, but not about radiation. And that’s the problem with some of these films: they’re focusing on the radiation, not the human response to it.
What about Son of God? While I do question some aspects of that move, it was still a movie largely biblically based. Didn’t it do pretty well in the theaters?
Son of God did well in relation to its budget, but the budget was very low. Budgeted at $22K, it grossed $25.6K on opening weekend and a total of almost $60K since. That’s almost a full year of sales since it opened in Feb 2014. So it doubled its budget, but in terms of “lucrative Christian audience” it hit in the same 50K to 60K range that Exodus and Unbroken did. So in relation to your standard “Biblical” movie, not any better. $60K is also around what “God is Not Dead” did, with a lot of Christian support and hype it. So that appears to be the max.
Lesson for Hollywood: if you’re going for a $100+K movie budget, relying on the Christian audience to succeed is a losing game. Such a movie needs to have a budget of no more than $40K to earn out. That eliminates epic, high-budget movies like Noah and Exodus, and it has even struck the Narnia movies as well.
They can (and have) made movies that appealed to and succeeded in large measure from Christian audiences. Noah and Exodus could have been huge hits, even with the large budgets. The Passion proved it could be done, grossing $600M. True, it cost “only”$30M, but bigger films succeed all the time.
As Brian Godawa recently asked, “Can nonchristians make ‘Christian’ films?” Does the answer tell us why which of the above succeeded and which didn’t? Perhaps, in part. I’m sure nonchristians can do it, but the track record isn’t good. Whoever makes the film must respect the source material, even when they speculate or embellish. We also can’t assume when someone is making a film on a Bible account that they are trying to make a Christian film.
Concerning the Narnia films, the last two both made $400M or so each. Dawn Treader was more profitable because of a lower budget than Caspian. I don’t think story changes were significant enough to impact larger success in these cases. Disney mishandled the Narnia films from the start. Fox took over on the third, and rights issues have been what have delayed a fourth. I bring all this up because the Narnia films can be considered a success, though not on the level of their Middle-Earth relatives (though the first did very well). Unfortunately, even the movie experts mishandle valuable franchises all the time.
IMDb didn’t report those kinds of sales for PC and VOTDT. If I recall correctly, $150M and $104M respectively. Both had higher budgets.
May be IMDb is only reporting US sales and whatever source you’re using includes other countries, and/or IMDb is recording total box office sales but your figure includes DVD, BlueRay, and other related income.
At any rate, I hope you’re right and as soon as rights are worked out, another Narnia movie shows up. It may even be that what is worked out restricts them from being too liberal with the story line as they were with Treader.
The Passion of Christ is probably one of the exceptions, doing quite well. With a budget of only 30M as you reported–that does seem to be about standard for a “Christian” movie–it was easy for it to be profitable. Being a big seller was icing on the cake. But overt Christian movies rarely do that well. Thus why they generally have small budgets, and why Hollywood will be hesitant to do one for a budget over $100M. Not unless they see a way for it to have mass appeal beyond the Christian market, which generally appears to be good for around $50-$60M.
I used the worldwide gross numbers. Hollywood increasingly relies on those numbers to determine success. Some of those markets have grown rapidly.
I think they intend to make The Silver Chair next. Hopefully it happens.
Technically, from one perspective, maybe we shouldn’t count the Passion. Gibson funded it himself because Hollywood didn’t want to do it.
They weren’t really Christian-themed movies as opposed to Biblical ones, and they failed mostly because they were revisionist histories. It’s the difference between Ang Lee’s version of the Hulk and the Avengers; the former was not particularly designed for fans and flopped.
However it does seem that Christian audiences mostly will watch the random, rare Biblical flick or crappy documentary, so you’re not going to see much investment in them beyond a few million dollars.
I just read Brian Godawa’s excellent article “Can Atheists Make Good Bible Movies” addressing why these 2014 movies didn’t do well, and I thought he made good sense:
As far as Unbroken is concerned, it’s not a Christian movie. That it is about a Christian is also not the main focus of the movie. Rather, it’s about an incredible story—we Christians see it as a triumph of God working in the life of a man He would use to spread the gospel and secularists see it as a triumph of the human spirit. I think it is doing quite well, and will probably do even better after the Rose Parade and the Torrance float featuring Louie Zamporini gave it further exposure.
I also think many of us have been waiting for a year for The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies. We’ve been waiting far less time for Unbroken, so it was kind of a no-brainer which we’d go to first. Yes, first, because I for one still plan on seeing Unbroken.
Brian makes some good points, but I still feel this is more a Hollywood problem than an atheist one. While it is true that such a person is going to infuse, even subconsciously, their world view into such a project, it is true that “spin” or rewriting the Biblical story is going to turn away the Christian audience and in essence make them not a “Christian” story, that only alienates a small percentage of the Christian audience. Most probably weren’t aware of any of that, at least until they were watching it in the theater.
But the problem with epic films that are based upon Biblical stories is two-fold. One, as we’ve shown here, relying exclusively on a Christian audience is good for around 60M in sales at best. Few overtly Christian movies have gone beyond that. The ones that did, like the Narnia movies, did so because they were able to expand beyond the Christian base that was excited to see them. All those had sales beyond 100M, LWW almost 300M. They had huge budgets, if I recall correctly, LWW-125M, PC-275M, VDT-150M. The only one that made money on ticket sales at least was LWW.
But what epic movies like that require is epic budgets. Noah and Exodus had budgets beyond 100K. Based on top selling Christian movies, the Christian audience alone cannot support such a budget. To be successful, those movies have to expand beyond the Christian base of movie-goers into the secular market.
Two, the problem with Noah and Exodus is they are explicitly Biblical stories. Those who don’t keep up with movie news, but just want to go to the theater to watch a movie, unless they are part of that “lucrative Christian audience,” are going to automatically dismiss them as “bible stories” and avoid going to see them. They tried to offset this by changing up the story enough to make it unique and exciting, with battles and plenty of conflict not in the Bible. Just like the Narnia movies. The hope obviously being to have something that will draw in the Christian audience (ah! a story in the Bible!) and exciting enough to attract non-Christians to see it. In both cases, it didn’t work. It appears they will not fair much better, if better, than the top ranking explicit Christian films. Whatever non-Christians they drew in only offset the Christians who didn’t come because of the rewriting of the Biblical story.
What it boils down to, either way you cut it, aside from any like-minded movies already in the works, we are not going to see any new Biblical epic stories come to screen in the immediate future. What we’re left with is the more explicit low-budget Christian-themed movies, not enough $s to make an epic blockbuster, or the occasional allegory that will get by enough non-christian’s filters and tell a good enough story that vast numbers of people will go see it like LWW did, and can support an epic budget.
An epic budget will be needed for most spec-fic Christian titles without looking cheesy. So that also means sticking to the same main-stream, low special-effects movies typically made, like God Is Not Dead.
Out of curiosity, I checked the numbers on “Left Behind.” Wow. Has to be the biggest flop of 2014 financially. It planned on only appealing to a Christian audience, with a low budget of 16M. Yes, folks, even at that extremely low budget, it did not earn out, grossing to date almost 14M. Neither the secular audience nor the Christian audience came out for that one much. I didn’t see it. That was with a lot of hype too. Marketing didn’t help that one much. Wonder what happened there?