As I wrote in The Weekly Standard a few weeks ago, the best way for Christians to affect Hollywood is not to protest but to go to more movies, make clear their love for the medium, and praise Hollywood for what it does right.
(Regular readers of this site and the author’s other writings will know that I live by those words.)
Now Fox Entertainment is showing exactly how quickly and surely such a strategy can work. The LA Times reports:
In the biggest commitment of its sort by a Hollywood studio, News Corp.’s Fox Filmed Entertainment is expected to unveil plans today to capture the gargantuan Christian audience that made "The Passion of the Christ" a global phenomenon.
The home entertainment division of Rupert Murdoch’s movie studio plans to produce as many as a dozen films a year under a banner called FoxFaith. At least six of those films will be released in theaters under an agreement with two of the nation’s largest chains, AMC Theatres and Carmike Cinemas.
The first theatrical release, called "Love’s Abiding Joy," is scheduled to hit the big screen Oct. 6. The movie, which cost about $2 million to make, is based on the fourth installment of Christian novelist Janette Oke’s popular series, "Love Comes Softly."
The production costs for this film do not sound exactly stunning, but the picture is obviously an experiment and a way of gauging exactly what the market is for such films on a regular basis, as opposed to big-budget "event" films such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings series. That makes good business sense for Fox and is good for the Christian audience in that success will not be defined as huge box office grosses but by a much more modest standard:
FoxFaith films, to be based on Christian bestsellers, will have small budgets of less than $5 million each, compared with the $60-million average. The movies each will be backed by $5-million marketing campaigns. Although that is skimpy compared with the $36 million Hollywood spends to market the average movie, the budget is significant for targeting a niche audience, especially one as fervent as many evangelical Christians.
There appears to be a huge market out there for Christian programming, the LA Times story notes:
For instance, "The Passion" grossed $612 million worldwide, thanks in part to its appeal to Christians. Another spiritual odyssey, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," took in $745 million globally. Most recently, Christians came out for this summer’s controversial "The Da Vinci Code," which has brought in $754 million worldwide.
The risk inherent in sending out a stream of low-budget films is that Fox will conclude that Christians will watch any kind of crud as long as it includes a scene in which a major character "accepts Christ into their life," which is what Christian fiction today all too commonly consists of. Fortunately, the studio seems to be after something quite different from that:
"A segment of the market is starving for this type of content," said Simon Swart, general manager of Fox’s U.S. home entertainment unit.
"We want to push the production value, not videotape sermons or proselytize."
Aesthetic quality and an understanding of the subject matter will be essential to the plan’s success:
"If this is something Fox is doing only to exploit the audience — or if it’s something they don’t believe in or are doing cynically — then there could be problems," said Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, a box-office reporting service. "There isn’t a huge turnout for these films unless they speak to what Christianity is all about. People want a guide to life and Hollywood has ignored that by saying nothing or dwelling on vices."
It makes great business sense for Fox to pursue a new and strongly defined audience as movie box office intake has been decreasing in recent years:
Over the last four years, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has quietly built a network to mobilize evangelical Christian moviegoers in an era of diminishing box-office returns. The network includes 90,000 congregations and a database of more than 14 million mainly evangelical households.
Other studios are watching and considering whether to follow suit:
New Line Cinema’s "The Nativity Story," scheduled to be released in December, tells the story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter to give birth to Jesus. Legendary Pictures, which has a multi-film deal with Warner Bros., is planning to make a movie version of John Milton’s epic 17th century poem about the fall of man, "Paradise Lost."
The latter sounds very interesting indeed, with its clear potential for grand drama and powerful visual imagery.
One hopes that Christians have learned—or relearned—that a customer has much more influence than a scold.