Faith-friendly films may be drawing in the crowds, but Hollywood is still scared of interacting with religious audiences.
How well do we know our audiences? That is a question which has been fascinating me since Warner Bros released The Blind Side in North America late last year.
The true story of a well-to-do, Republican-voting, conservative Christian woman who befriends and adopts a black teenager and coaxes him to a successful career in football (of the American variety), the film is one of those soggy feelgood movies which I, like many, dismissed at the time but for a notable, no-nonsense performance from Sandra Bullock.
But I was never the target audience.
For an industry so set on connecting with audiences, its refusal or inability to consistently make these movies any more, however unfashionable they may be, defies business sense.
In the heartland of America - the Republican-voting, conservative Christian heartland - the film took off in a way that astonished naysayers. Here was a film about a wholesome couple with values and belief systems to which middle Americans could relate, or at least aspire. As the film closes in on $250m at the domestic box office, the message couldn’t be clearer. There aren’t enough films being made which cater to this massively underserved movie-going segment.
Last week Samuel Goldwyn Films opened its Christian-themed (or ‘faith-based’) drama, To Save A Life, on 441 US screens to an impressive $3,586 screen average, as good as any number of Oscar contenders which cost much, much more to make. The film was the weekend’s 15th biggest. And who can forget the enormous crowds that flocked to The Passion Of The Christ six years ago? Mel Gibson’s film grossed more than Mamma Mia! The Movie or Iron Man worldwide. Domestically, it made more than Jurassic Park.
The audience is there. So why are its needs so rarely met? The main reason faith-friendly films are generally overlooked is plain lack of interest on the part of (mainly left-wing, liberal) executives, writers, film-makers and actors who would rather not go there. Most of them live in cosmopolitan urban environments and are frankly out of touch with the desires of the ‘heartland ‘audiences in the US or anywhere else.
Hollywood never used to be scared of interacting with the religious audience and stars including Charlton Heston, John Wayne and Paul Newman all appeared in religious blockbusters. For an industry so set on connecting with audiences, its refusal or inability to consistently make these movies any more, however unfashionable they may be, defies business sense.
There’s no bigger proof of a vast audience for inspirational and spiritual films than Avatar. OK, so stories about Jesus may not be cool, but James Cameron used ecological themes at the heart of his story in the same way Ben-Hur or Quo Vadis used Christianity to sell tickets. In Avatar, the tree-worshippers beat the technocratic pagans by using faith and courage.
You half expect a blue Charlton Heston to bring down the Red Sea on the godless Earthlings.
The Vatican jealously dismissed Avatar recently, Vatican Radio declaring that it turned “ecology into the religion of the millennium”. But Cameron’s genius is creating a movie that the sleeping audience could connect with on a pseudo-religious level for the first time since The Passion Of The Christ.
When Doha-based Al Noor Holdings announced plans last year to enter the business, it proudly said that its first production would be a $150m movie on the life of Mohammed. Whether that film gets made or not, at least it’s a case of knowing your audience.