While most box office-related stories from this past weekend were all about the unprecendented numbers that came via “The Hunger Games,” there was another success story lying in its shadow.
On 390 screens, Samuel Goldwyn released Andrew and Jon Erwin’s “October Baby” and, despite a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 24%, the film placed in the top 10 alongside studio films playing on five or 10 times the screens. The film — about a college freshman who learns she is the “adopted survivor of an attempted abortion” (so says the film’s official description) — grossed $1,697,130 and averaged $4,352 per screen (which was the third highest in the top 10 after “Games” and “21 Jump Street”). That means it’s already more than made up for its $1 million budget.
Inspired by a YouTube video chronicling the experiences of real-life abortion survivor Gianna Jessen, the film was heavily promoted in churches and other faith-based organizations, following a considerable line of independent films that have done the same.
Here’s five other Christian-fueled indies that made some serious green:
1. The Passion of the Christ
Release Date: February 25, 2004
Budget: $30 million
Gross: $370.8 million
What Went Down: Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” stands apart from every other example on this list in that it became a genuine blockbuster that broke well beyond the faith-based market.
Covering the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, the film was produced independently by Gibson and his Icon Prods. with no outside funding. Paul Lauer spearheaded the entire faith-based campaign as Director of Marketing for the film. Newmarket came on later focused on the distribution and mainstream PR. There were no press junkets, a small-scale TV campaign and a heavy promotion in church groups, who often gave away free tickets.
The result? A staggering $83.8 million opening weekend and an eventual gross of $370.8 million – the highest total ever for any independent film.
Release Date: September 30, 2011
Budget: $2 million
Gross: $34.5 million
What Went Down: Produced by Sherwood Pictures (a Albany, Georgia-based Christian production company based out of the Sherwood Baptist Church) and co-written, directed and starring its founder Alex Kendrick (“the associate pastor of media” at the church), “Courageous” depicts the Albany, Georgia police force as they try to stop drug smuggling in the city. About half of the cast and crew were volunteers from the church.
Released last year through distributor TriStar, it became the company’s biggest hit so far, grossing an impressive $9.1 million in its first weekend. Its $34.5 million final gross made it one of the highest grossing independent films of last year, topping “The Iron Lady,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “My Week With Marilyn,” among others.
The film was marketed largely in the faith-based markets by Provident Films, which also marketed their previous films (two of which are noted below). The contemporary Christian band Casting Crowns released a song titled “Courageous” to promote the film with a video featuring scenes from it.
Release Date: September 26, 2008
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn
Gross: $33.5 million
What Went Down: The predecessor to “Courageous,” this film — starring Christian fundamentalist icon Kirk Cameron — was another massive success for Sherwood Pictures. It follows a firefighter (Cameron) whose relationship with his wife is having serious problems (he’s addicted to internet porn, for one). So they decide to do a 40-day test to strengthen their marriage called “the love dare,” based on a real life, Baptist-produced self-help book that was — you guessed it — written by the the film’s director, Alex Kendrick (and became a #1 New York Times bestseller).
Like “Courageous,” the film was directed by Kendrick and set in Albany Georgia, the film was made on a cheap $500K budget, thanks to most of the locations being donated and its cast and crew being made up of volunteers.
Instead of marketing with television spots and billboards, the marketing team invited Christian publications to the set and screened the film early for pastors and church groups. It worked. The film ended up being the highest grossing independent film of 2008, grossing over $33 million. It also helped launch Cameron’s status in pop culture from washed up former TV hearthrob to Christian right spokesperson.
4. The Omega Code
Release Date: October 15, 1999
Budget: $7.6 million
Gross: $12.6 million
What Went Down: Based on televangelist (and head of the Trinity Broadcasting Network) Paul Crouch’s novel, “The Omega Code” is a thriller about a plot by the Antichrist to take over the world. Produced by Crouch’s son Matthew, the film was perhaps the least financially successful film on this list considering its $7.6 million budget, but was still impressive nonetheless.
The film was released on 305 screens and managed a top 10 debut, averaging an impressive $7,745 per-screen. This was aided by intense promotion on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and a huge internet campaign with a website — complete with a scriptual guide for download — that at one point had 500,000 hits in one day. Churchs purchases thousands of tickets, with some buying out entire theaters. Clearly the end result was no “Fireproof,” but nearly a decade its predecessor — “The Omega Code” was a pioneer in faith-based marketing for Christian films.
5. Facing The Giants
Release Date: February 25, 2004
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn
Gross: $10.2 million
What Went Down: Before the cops of “Courageous” and the firefighters of “Fireproof,” there was the football team in “Facing The Giants.” The film that put Sherwood Pictures on the map, this film takes on the classic tale on an underdog football team and gives it an evangelical Christian spin. Budgeted at just $100,000, it was shown in over 1,000 theaters and ended up with a gross 100 times its budget.
“Giants” benefited from some Weinstein-style MPAA-related controversy, when it received a PG rating. The Drudge Report picked up the story and said the rating was solely because of its religious theme. This led to various media picking up the story, and bringing awareness to the film outside the typical faith-based marketing that was already in place. The MPAA held firm that its rating was because the film contains football violence and also deals with the “mature topics of infertility and depression.”