On the heels of the Weinstein Company’s decision to jump into the faith-based film market, and a disappointing box-office showing for The Nativity Story in December, 20th Century Fox’s new “Fox Faith” division recently released two new films Thr3ee, and The Last Sin Eater, adaptations of popular Christian-oriented novels made on shoestring budgets. Both opened to severely disappointing box-office turnout and are prime examples of the problems facing the Christian-oriented film industry.
Fox Faith was created after 20th Century Fox missed a chance to distribute The Passion Of the Christ theatrically, but picked up home video rights. Seventeen million copies later, it has turned out to be a cash cow for the studio. Fox didn’t intend to miss out on opportunities like this in the future. Thus, the creation of Fox Faith, which aims, according to its website, to distribute “faith-based” films. “To be part of Fox Faith, a movie has to have overt Christian Content or be derived from the work of a Christian author.” As part of what looks to be a growing trend, the Weinstein company also recently jumped into the faith-based film market.
Fox’s creation of Fox Faith has been met with mixed reviews by many observers in the film and faith community. Some see it as a step forward, getting faith-friendly fare into the studio system. Others see it as a step backward, one that will result not in faith-driven films going mainstream and reaching a broad, values-driven audience, but rather in the creation of a steady stream of cheaply produced, second-rate products that will then be marketed exclusively to religious Americans as “Christian films” and will not be widely available to more secular moviegoers.
Before studios rush to create faith-oriented divisions to handle mostly Christian-oriented films, they should consider whether such a move is wise and whether they desire to make films to be viewed only by those who want to see their faith in the films they watch or also by a broad, values-driven audience.
After spending years studying and writing about the formation of the Christian music industry, it’s clear to me that the mistakes and successes of that industry have much to teach the burgeoning community of devout filmmakers. While the creation of the Christian music industry was heralded by some as a chance to bring Christian-themed rock music to the masses, in reality it became little more than a subculture of sometimes interesting, sometimes derivative music that was exclusively marketed and distributed to religious Americans, outside of the mainstream system. It wasn’t until artists like Switchfoot, P.O.D., Sufjan Stevens, Flyleaf, and Cold War Kids went outside of that system and signed with mainstream labels that they began to have the kind of impact they are today having.
Artists, including filmmakers, like to have their art viewed and heard by as many people as possible. But the Christian music model makes artists’ work accessible only to those in the habit of shopping at religious music stores or listening to religious radio stations. If Fox Faith, the Weinsteins, and other similar efforts follow this model, filmmakers who work with them can expect to reach only a limited audience.
So, for the faith community, the creation of Fox Faith and the foray of the Weinstein Company is a good news/bad news scenario, one that could either lead to a steady stream of interesting faith-driven fare like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Passion Of The Christ, and Luther, or sub-par works like The Omega Code, Seven, and Left Behind. Some fear it may be the latter.
Tellingly, there’s the name, Fox Faith, which presumes a number of things about this country — namely, that the U.S. is a secular nation, hungry for secular entertainment divorced from morality and faith, making faith-oriented fare somewhat of an anomaly deserving of its own division, constituting just another “niche market.” This was readily acknowledged by a Weinstein Company spokesman, who noted, “This deal fits perfectly into our strategy of acquiring and producing films that target niche audiences.”
There would be a logic to creating a Fox Faith brand if we were living in highly secular countries like, say, France or Japan. But the U.S. is one of the most religious nations on earth, where 92 percent of the people profess a belief in God and 84 percent call themselves Christians. So perhaps Fox should consider mainstreaming Fox Faith, folding it into 20th Century Fox, and instead finding a really smart, secular Hollywood-type to run a new division called “Fox Secular.”
It’s not that Americans who aren’t particularly devout shouldn’t be able to enjoy films, or that Fox shouldn’t produce them. But Fox and the Weinstein Company have the equation backwards: The niche market is comprised of a rather small group of highly secular Americans who want a high wall of separation between faith and film, in contrast to the millions of Americans who hunger for entertainment that references, or at least isn’t ignorant of, their deepest spiritual beliefs and impulses.
A reshuffle of the deck at Fox could look something like this: The newly minted studio, led by an executive who has a better understanding of the massive faith and family market, could produce and distribute dozens of faith-friendly films, beginning with a film version of The Purpose Driven Life (a book with sales of more than 30 million copies), which was published by Fox’s sister company Harper-Collins. A nice $75 million budget and some A-list actors, complete with a Passion-style marketing campaign, could very well turn it into the biggest blockbuster of all time.
Fox Secular, on the other hand, could also make an important contribution by reaching its niche audience, continuing to produce and distribute important films that speak to more secular Americans. A Borat sequel would be a good candidate for Fox Secular, as would have been Kinsey, a film celebrating the life of America’s best known sexologist, released last year by Fox. Perhaps other important secular biopics on important historical figures like Charles Darwin, Dr. Ruth, Frederic Nietzsche, Marilyn Manson, and others could be brought to market on a limited number of screens. Secular Americans deserve to have inspirational stories in their local theaters, and Fox Secular would be there to meet that demand, releasing films on, say, 400 screens nationwide and focused on blue states. Occasionally, some of those films may even cross over to the wider values-driven mainstream audience outside of the secular niche. After all, there may very well be some churchgoers who enjoy watching Sacha Cohen play tasteless practical jokes on suspecting Americans or who want to see films that feature secular American heroes.
Such a move on the part of a studio like Fox would send a strong signal to millions of heretofore disenfranchised traditionalist Americans who have, for various reasons, either never or rarely attended films in the past 50 years. The sudden appearance of many of these first-time moviegoers in theaters was one of the key reasons for the success of The Passion of the Christ.
In 2004, shortly before the film’s release, the Los Angeles Times predicted the film would take in $25 million at the box-office opening week. When the dust had settled it had instead earned a whopping $115 million–meaning that somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million people who were not “in the system” (that is, those who rarely or never attend movies) had supported a film they were finally interested in.
Of all the studios, Fox is best positioned to understand this dynamic, having launched the Fox News Channel in 1996. In so doing, executives like Roger Ailes understood that America was basically a center-right nation viewing center-left fare simply because nothing else was available, even as it hungered for programming that more closely reflected its values. When Fox finally figured this out, they doubled, and in some cases tripled, CNN’s audience. If and when Rupert Murdoch and company realize the same lessons are there to be learned in the film world, it’s entirely possible that they will realize unprecedented profits and discover a new and far larger filmgoing audience.
– Mark Joseph is the author of Faith, God & Rock ‘n’ Roll, editor of Pop Goes Religion, and founder of the MJM Group. He has worked on the development and marketing of films including The Chronicles of Narnia and Ray.