New faith-based films tone down religion, amp up star power
LOS ANGELES (AP) — For some filmgoers, hearing a movie described as "faith-based" makes it a must-see. But just as many others find the term a turn-off.
To reach audiences beyond the Christian churchgoers that generally propel the genre, some producers of faith-based films are ramping up the star power and tamping down the evangelical messages.
The latest example is "Miracles From Heaven," starring Jennifer Garner and Queen Latifah, which tells the true story of a 9-year-old Texas girl who inexplicably recovers from an incurable condition after surviving a 30-foot fall.
Among the film's producers are pastor T.D. Jakes and preacher DeVon Franklin — the team behind 2014's $100 million hit "Heaven is for Real" — who say they aim to make movies for all audiences, not just religious ones.
"I think sometimes when people hear 'faith-based,' to them that is code for preachy, that is code for more medicine, and it's also sometimes code for lower quality, lower budgeted," Franklin said in a recent interview.
"It's the way people think when you use labels that is the barrier," Jakes said. "It's not necessarily the film, but the image that comes up in people's minds ... It suggests a discrimination that was not intended. We didn't do this film just for people of faith. We did this film for everybody."
Other entertainment aimed at Christian audiences, including new films "The Young Messiah" and "God's Not Dead 2," and the live TV special "The Passion" (airing Sunday), take a more religious approach.
"Miracles From Heaven" is based on Christy Beam's 2015 memoir, which describes her family's struggles and her own crisis of faith when daughter Anna is diagnosed with an incurable digestive disorder, then has a potentially deadly fall. But following the mishap, Anna has no serious injuries and ultimately shows no signs of the disorder. She later tells her mom she went to heaven and talked to Jesus during the ordeal.
The film is being released Wednesday by Sony's Affirm Films, the studio's specialty faith division established in 2007.
Affirm also released "Heaven is for Real," starring Greg Kinnear, which is similarly based on a parent's account of a child's divine experience. The film had a reported $12 million budget and made more than $100 million at the box office.
Paramount's "Captive," released last fall, was a modest faith-based success. Also a true story, it stars David Oyelowo as Brian Nichols, an escaped murderer who takes a single mother (Kate Mara) hostage, then lets her go after she reads a Christian book to him. Despite mixed reviews, it more than doubled its small budget at the box office.
Marketing a film as faith-based means nothing if the content doesn't speak to religious audiences, said Maria Elena de Las Carreras, a professor of international cinema at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.
"It's a label, but it's not magical. It doesn't guarantee box-office turnout," she said, citing Paramount's 2014 big-budget Biblical flop, "Noah."
"Audiences flock to well-made films that deal with stories of optimism and renewal, even if there is suffering and there is loss," she said. "That was true in classic Hollywood cinema and it's true today."
Hollywood has a long history of Biblical blockbusters, from Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" to the currently playing "Risen," also released by Affirm and starring Joseph Fiennes. But such big names haven't traditionally been drawn to the quieter God-related fare.
Garner, who plays Christy Beam in "Miracles From Heaven," celebrated the film's Christian themes.
"I wasn't scared of doing a movie that had faith at its center, as long as it wasn't preachy," Garner told The Associated Press. "And doing this movie, part of that is talking about something that I've always held dear and close to my heart... I'm proud of growing up a little good churchgoing United Methodist girl and I'm so, so proud of the film."
Director Patricia Riggen ("The 33") said she didn't approach the film from a religious perspective.
"I wanted to make the movie have a wide appeal and be able to be seen and enjoyed by people of any faith or no faith at all," she said. "It was, for me, important to keep it open in that sense."
Even films not branded as faith-based can be "promoted from the pulpit," said de Las Carreras, who says she is Catholic.
"When the priest in the sermon mentions a film, I pay attention, because of the authority," she said.
Churches are powerful marketing agents, said Alex Ben Block, founder of entertainment industry website BlockandTackle.biz, noting some congregations organize carpools or hire buses to take members to the latest faith-based releases.
"That's really fed some of the movies that have done well," he said, adding that faith-based films also have long lives after their theatrical releases as they become regular viewing in Sunday school classes and daycare.
But echoing UCLA's de Las Carreras, Block said producers aiming at broader audiences for their faith-based fare can't obscure religious themes too much "because as soon as you try to make it more viable, you alienate the core audience."