Christian movies have a reputation as being subpar and agenda-driven, but directors are increasingly telling rich stories about spirituality, theology, and the meaning of life.
As “faith-based” films flooded into theaters last year, writers fell over themselves to declare 2014 the “year of the Bible movie.” It seemed as if the market—meaning Christian audiences to many—had finally come into its own, a decade after the runaway box-office success of The Passion of the Christ.
Certainly, movies that reinforce beliefs their target audience already hold can make a lot of money, from political documentaries directed by Michael Moore or Dinesh D’Souza to films titled with declarations of religious certainty. God’s Not Dead, a drama about an evangelical student who clashes with a philosophy professor, earned $62.6 million on a $2 million budget. Heaven Is for Real, starring Greg Kinnear, cost $12 million and made $101.3 million. Son of God, which cut down the television miniseries The Bible to feature-film length, made $67.8 million, or three times its budget. And even Biblical epics that religious audiences found questionable, such as Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, did respectable business abroad.
But those numbers only tell part of the story. Left Behind, a remake of the bestselling apocalyptic novels, starred Nicolas Cage and had a $16 million budget but opened to dismal reviews and grossed only $14 million domestically. Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, universally panned, made $2.8 million, as did The Identical, with a cast including Ashley Judd and Ray Liotta. Grace Unplugged, a family drama, made about $2.5 million; The Song, which most critics ranked a notch above its peers, pulled in barely $1 million at the box office, as did Persecuted, a thriller that grossed $1.5 million.
I watched the “year of the Bible film” happen from the inside, as the chief film critic at one of the oldest and most widely read evangelical publications in the world, Christianity Today. I’ve come to realize there is both widespread category confusion in the industry about what constitutes a faith-based audience and ignorance about a burgeoning religious movement in independent cinema—something that was especially apparent earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
In the movie business, “Christian” or “religious” usually gets conflated with the “faith-and-family” audience, sidestepping a wide swath of people of faith who aren’t looking for “safe” stories. One publicist informed me ahead of Sundance that the film she was representing wasn’t “appropriate for Christians.” Another told me it would never have occurred to her to pitch me. Marketers, publicists, and distributors tend to view Christian moviegoers as a monolithically single-minded group staunchly opposed to any film that might garner more than a PG rating, and only interested in movies that depict Biblical stories, tell inspirational biographical tales (mostly about athletes, brave children, or war heroes), or explicitly reinforce their own beliefs.
If you ask me, the most “Christian” film released in 2014 was Calvary, which premiered at Sundance in 2014. The movie starred Brendan Gleeson as a tough but loving priest facing his death in a remote fishing village. Rife with religious imagery and resonances, the film’s message about forgiveness and redemption is thoroughly consistent with Christian theology and features a bracing view of the havoc wreaked on generations of children by abusive ministers (by no means a problem exclusive to Catholics). Though it got left out of many “faith-based” discussions because it garnered an R rating from the MPAA for “sexual references, language, brief strong content, and some drug use,” it earned raves from secular and religious critics alike, garnering a Rotten Tomatoes score of 89 percent.
Calvary, along with movies like the Oscar nominees Ida and Selma, is an explicitly religious exploration of widely asked questions that doesn’t point to easy answers. Several Christian critics writing for religious outlets (including myself) put all three of these films in our top ten lists for the year—while also facing significant backlash from some readers who were horrified that we’d praise, let alone watch, a “blasphemous” film like Noah.
But I noticed something interesting. For every angry reader who contacted me—and there were many, and they were caustic—another expressed gratitude. Many were Christians; some had grown up in church and left it behind; a few were indifferent to religion altogether. All, however, were looking for carefully crafted films that took the religious experience seriously.
“The faith-film category has come to mean agenda-driven, fear-driven, low-quality, low-budget, on-the-nose, teaching, industrial films that willingly overlook excellence and story because they know they can,” Erik Lokkesmoe, the founder and co-president of Aspiration Media, told me. His company helped produce the 2015 Sundance premiere Last Days in the Desert, a film about the temptation of Christ starring Ewan McGregor in a dual role as Jesus and Satan. “They have trained an audience to expect trite, theologically thin, bumper-sticker movies, designed for church outings.”
Click here to read more.