Praise Jesus! Faith-Based Movies Found a Winning Formula for Original Movies

From George Foreman to Jesus, Christian films have discovered the elusive winning formula for original dramas. Indie film distributors would do well to take note.
BIG GEORGE FOREMAN, (aka BIG GEORGE FOREMAN: THE MIRACULOUS STORY OF THE ONCE AND FUTURE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD), front, from left: Forest Whitaker, Khris Davis as George Foreman, 2023. ph: Alan Markfield / © Sony Pictures Entertainment / Courtesy Everett Collection
"Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World"
©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

There’s George Foreman the boxer and George Foreman™ the grill. The Sony biopic out this Friday offers a different George. “I want to spread the word of God,” says Foreman (Khris Davis) in the trailer for “Big George Foreman: The Miraculous Story of the Once and Future Heavyweight Champion of the World.”

It’s a production from faith-based Sony Pictures’ label Affirm Films. Its first film in 2008, “Fireproof” starring Kirk Cameron, grossed $33 million on a $500,000 budget. To date, the (mostly domestic) global theatrical gross for Affirm titles stands at $520 million — $400 million more than the films’ total production costs.

Directed by George Tillman Jr. (“The Hate U Give,” “Notorious”) and with Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker in a supporting role, “Foreman” may represent the biggest Affirm budget to date. (One source lists it at $34 million.) Prior Affirm budgets topped out at $20 million. It’s also got one of Affirm’s biggest releases, with 2,575 theaters.

Opening prospects are unclear. Industry sources suggest an opening of $10 million, enough to land somewhere between #2 and #4 at the box office. However, these films have a history of surprising the pundits.

Hit movies with religious themes date back to the 1925 silent film “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” while the 1956 “The Ten Commandments” remains the #6 all time domestic grosser. Mel Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ,” which arguably sparked the modern-day revival of faith-based films, has an adjusted domestic gross of $546 million.

BEN-HUR, from left, May McAvoy, Ramon Novarro, 1925
May McAvoy and Ramon Novarro in the 1925 “Ben Hur”Courtesy Everett Collection

That remains a high-water mark for the genre, but Affirm and “Foreman” are following in its lead in smart and creative ways. It’s also a template that might benefit other niches of film distribution.

The contemporary religious movie isn’t an epic. It’s a smaller-scale model that recognizes its audience is niche, almost entirely domestic, and the films are made to that scale. “Foreman” like most faith-based films, is a drama. It is (relatively) contemporary. It isn’t aimed at IMAX or other premium audiences and it’s a stand-alone, non-franchise title. (The Cameron-fronted “Left Behind” series in the early aughts was an exception.)

Perhaps more significantly is while Affirm’s titles have the feel of conventional releases, the core elements of faith-based titles convey legitimacy for their audience.

These include source material; real-life figures; best-selling books, creators like the Erwin brothers and the Kendrick brothers; and actors like Jim Cazaviel, Mel Gibson, Kelsey Grammer, Kevin Sorbo who are identified with religious or conservative ideologies. “Father Stu” starred Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson; with a $4 million production budget, the actors worked for a price.

Big George Foreman” has a, well, bigger feel to it — a veteran director, producer Peter Guber’s Mandalay Pictures (which also has “Air” in theaters), and a trailer that on first impression conveys a conventional sports biopic. But the marketing makes no attempt to hide its faith-based emphasis and how Foreman’s religious awakening drives his career.

Jesus Revolution” (Lionsgate), retelling a 1970s hippie-based revival movement, grossed $52 million on a $15 million budget. That’s a little less than what “Air” (MGM) may total, an Amazon production estimated to have cost up to $130 million in combined production and marketing costs. “Jesus Revolution” achieved the same with next to no mainstream film media coverage.

That’s the level at which “Foreman” might aim, but there’s many examples of smaller-scale miracles. “His Only Son,” an Old Testament story made for $250,000 by ex-Marine David Helling, opened in late March with a gross of $12 million so far. That is more than Searchlight saw in the U.S./Canada for “The Banshees of Inisherin” and more than Focus grossed with “TÁR.”

“Nefarious” is the unusual R-rated genre film that treats demonic possession as a faith-based twist. It’s the first title from director Chuck Konzleman’s (“Unplanned”) own Soli Deo Gloria Releasing and it grossed $2.5 million. Not a lot  — but likely more than acclaimed indie releases “Showing Up” (A24) and “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” (Neon).

The Chosen
“The Chosen”

Two episodes from the online streaming series “The Chosen” opened as a pre-Christmas, mid-week Fathom event. Extended playdates got the gross up to $14.6 million — just below what “Babylon” and “Amsterdam” each achieved late last year.

Fathom, Trafalagar, and other event distributors have made faith-based showings a center of their programming. In March, Fathom scheduled three weekdays of shows for the documentary “Come Out in Jesus Name.” With about 1,000 theaters, it grossed $2.5 million. That’s a nice return and found money for theaters.

The audience for faith-based movies is very different than established specialized releasing, but it deserves to be considered a part of the American independent film world. The demographics for these groups reflect splits along coastal/interior and urban/rural, but it’s the more-traditional film community that’s struggling — and it could learn from event-based releasing.

CNN Films’ “Little Richard: I Am Everything” got major attention out of Sundance, but last weekend it grossed less than $15,000 in a 19-theater, parallel theatrical and VOD release. Would there have been more potential with an event-centered presentation? This is a film that benefits from viewing with a crowd and that didn’t happen when the average theater saw about 100 people across a full weekend of shows.

The idea isn’t new. Abramorama, which began event screenings in 2017 with the National Geographic documentary “Jane,” will release Oliver Stone’s “Nuclear Now” as a one-day, 300-theater event May 1 following a two-city platform weekend.

The indie-film audience may envy the faith-based successes, but replication faces challenges. The faith audience is concentrated and reachable through church marketing and the instinct for communal experience runs deeper in religious communities. And unlike secular entertainment, churches face little competition from at-home services.

The performance of “Big George Foreman” will be revealing: Does faith-based marketing work on a movie with broader themes and more traditional release strategies? It may reveal that god doesn’t work by faith alone.

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