What Ministry Resources Are Available For “I Can Only Imagine”, “Paul”, and “God’s Not Dead 3”?

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Last weekend, the movie industry was collectively stunned when the Erwin Brother’s I Can Only Imagine sold $17 million dollars worth of seats (which roughly equals $1.5 billion in concessions) on a $7 million dollar budget, the 4th best opening for a faith-based film ever.

This weekend, Affirm Films’ new Christian-themed film, Paul, Apostle of Christ, will open, followed Easter weekend by Pure Flix’s third film in the God’s Not Dead franchise, God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. That’s three major Christian-made films opening across the nation in a two week period, films that have been made both as cinematic experiences as well as ministry opportunities.

This is one of the things that sets the so-called “faith-based film” genre apart from most other genres – the idea that the films are meant to be more than just entertainment, but entertainment with spiritual ramifications: an opportunity to learn about the Christian faith in a non-threatening, neutral environment for those outside the faith, or a chance for spiritual growth for people who are already followers of Jesus Christ.

To illustrate what I mean by this, on the website for I Can Only Imagine, we’re told, “A gripping reminder of the power of forgiveness, I CAN ONLY IMAGINE beautifully illustrates that no one is ever too far from God’s love—or from an eternal home in Heaven.” Paul, Apostle of Christ has a page on it’s website where James Faulkner, who plays Paul in the film, reads portions of Scripture as a tool for Christians observing the season of Lent. The makers of God’s Not Dead 3: Light in the Darkness sayGOD’S NOT DEAD: A LIGHT IN DARKNESS is a powerful reminder that in all circumstances, we are called to be a light for Jesus to a world in desperate need of hope.”

And so Christian-made filmmakers will often develop ministry tools to encourage churches and individuals to take the film as more than just entertainment. This can be interpreted in at least three ways: one, that the filmmakers are genuinely wanting their films to make a spiritual impression on audiences; two, that the filmmakers recognize that ministry resources are another revenue stream and an encouragement to sell bulk tickets to entire churches; and three, a combination of the two.

The second option might seem cynical, but it can’t be disputed that filmmaking – even Christian-made filmmaking – is big business. It’s especially indisputable now that we are living in a time where three modestly budgeted Christian-made films featuring well known actors are being released in thousands of cinemas across the country in two weeks. These films represent hundreds of filmmaking professionals, thousands of hours of work, millions of dollars of investment, and so it makes sense that many decisions connected to these films are directly related to the potential big payoffs that will hopefully accompany them. But at the same time, they are also legitimate means for opening discussions about spiritual and theological issues, and this is where the ministry tools come into play.

What about the three movies being released now? What sorts of ministry resources are they offering? Are they giving away ministry resources, charging for them, or both?

cityonahillOn the I Can Only Imagine website, we are directed to a page that links to a few different things. The first is a link to City on a Hill’s website where the majority of ministry resources are offered, including: a small group study ($39.99); a journal ($14.99); a leader’s guide ($14.99); a church campaign kit ($79.99); and others. Back on the movie’s website, you can also purchase Bart Millard’s autobiography, A MercyMe album, an I Can Only Imagine children’s book, and a host of other things including a bunch of framed art.

The website doesn’t list any free ministry resources other than some free downloadables such as video clips and web banners.

paulA trip to the Paul, Apostle of Christ website finds a much smaller resource operation going on, with more resources being given away. Like I Can Only Imagine, Paul‘s website offers a few free downloadable social media items, but they also offer a couple of ministry resources including a reasonably comprehensive discussion guide and a more concise church leader packet, all available as free downloads.

Interestingly, you’ll find no church campaign kits advertised on the Paul website, but I did some digging around and found out that Outreach is selling one for $49.95.

Our final stop on the Christian-made movie tour takes us to Pure Flix’s God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness webpage and the first thing that struck me when visiting this website was that you can tell that Pure Flix has done this before.

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The main clue is the way they handle the campaign kit. It’s not just a simple Bible study or sermon guide selling from $49.45 to $79.99. Rather, it’s a kit to help your church buy out a theater and hold a premiere event experience complete with optional red carpet (extra $199) and backdrop for photos (extra $370 for a 9’8″x 7’2″ Jumbo Sleeve Banner). How much for this experience? Roughly $2,500. This is being billed as an experience where your church or organization would need to purchase at least 250 seats – essentially buying out the theater – and the cost would include many of the same things you get in a typical campaign kit.

Interestingly – and this is what sets Pure Flix apart from the other companies – you cannot purchase a church campaign kit without the theater buyout.

Here is a video they include explaining their strategy:

So your church’s options are two (A) buy out the theater and give away the tickets or (B) buy out the theater and charge your church members and guests to attend. Either way, Pure Flix is passing the costs down the line and insuring that they will sell out theaters. Is it a good ministry model? A good movie business model? Both?

Interestingly, on Pure Flix’s “premiere partner” FAQ page, they have this question and answer:

 

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I Can Only Imagine Spurs Copycat Productions

imagesA Thimblerig’s Ark Exclusive

This weekend, The Erwin Brothers shocked all of Hollywood when their $7 million budgeted biopic about a Christian musician bowed to the tune of a $17 million take at the box office. The movie’s numbers stunned all the analysts who had predicted it would make a much more modest $1.5 million to $8 million, and unconfirmed reports say that at least two studio executives who passed on the project have resigned and started frozen yogurt shops in their respective hometowns.

Thimblerig’s Ark is fortunate enough to have eyes and ears all over Hollywood, and so we were not so shocked or stunned to find out that wheels were immediately set in motion all over Tinseltown this weekend in an attempt to capture faith-based lightning in a bottle, as they always seem to do when a movie shocks and stuns them. Who can forget what happened after the phenomenal success of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” back in 2002? Six months later we had to endure a spate of copycat movies trying to jump on the wedding bandwagon, with “My Somewhat Large Kazakh Wedding”, “My Huge and Dominating Somali Wedding”, and the surprisingly entertaining counter-programming attempt starring Mr. Bean,  “My Tiny Little Iberian Divorce.”

Our sources tell us that soon after the numbers started rolling in, representatives from all the major production companies started rolling out to Nashville to strike deals of their own with Christian songwriters in an attempt to have the next “I Can Only Imagine”. Yes, as we were tucked all snug in our beds with visions of Bart Millard dancing in our head, deals were being struck and IPs were being purchased all across Music City.

Here are just some of the movies that are reportedly now “in the works”:

1. “God of Wonders”  written by Marc Byrd and Steve Hindalong was reportedly purchased by representatives of Lucasfilm, who – our sources tell us – were impressed by the intergalactic themes of the song. Inspired by the partnership model set by the Erwin Brothers, George Lucas will reportedly co-direct with Steven Spielberg, and there’s talk that they will take a common last name “Lucberg” to complete the brother effect. Sources say that The Lucberg Brothers have north of $200M set aside for this big budget sci-fi worship project.

2. “God of this City” written by Chris Tomlin has been picked up by Christopher Nolan’s Syncopy Inc, with Nolan attached to direct. Our sources tell us that Nolan was attracted to the urban feel of the song, and imagines a biopic of Tomlin – shot entirely with practical effects – where we learn about the singer’s rise in the Christian music industry – having a string of number one hits, selling out coliseums and amphitheaters – while also learning Tomlin’s lesser known story of dressing as a dark avenging angel and fighting crime on the side. Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are rumored to be considering the part of Chris Tomlin.

3. “The Warrior Is A Child” by Twila Paris. There is little information about this collaboration, but sources tell us that helmer Patty Jenkins met with Paris for several hours at a back table in Nashville’s Frothy Monkey, pounding out details. One source suggested that certain words were overheard (“armor”, “sword”, “mystical beam of light”) that suggest that Jenkins is planning on taking Paris’s life story mythological, possibly piggybacking on the success of Wonder Woman to make the classic CCM artist’s story into a rousing action adventure film.

4. “Awesome God”, “Step by Step”, and “Screendoor on a Submarine” by Rich Mullins. A reboot trilogy planned around the life of the late singer/songwriter Rich Mullins is apparently in the works with helmer Michael Bay. Bay was said to have met with representatives of the Mullins estate in a double wide trailer outside of Wichita, Kansas where he laid out his plan to tell Mullin’s life story as an “explosive trilogy triptych” using each song as a framing device for each movie, the final movie being filmed entirely underwater in a screened-in submarine. Reportedly, the earlier low-budget indy film “Ragamuffin” will be decanonized and now officially referred to as a “Mullins Legend”.

5. “Friends” by Michael W. Smith. One of the most surprising acquisitions has to be Martin Scorcese’s purchase of Michael W. Smith’s evergreen song, celebrating the joy of Christian friendship. Does this signal a change of direction in the venerable director’s career? Is he moving away from serious dramatic films into the realm of lighthearted buddy movies? Or, will Scorsese take this staple of Christian high school graduations in a surprisingly dark direction? Only time will tell.

Christian Film Distributors, What Are You Doing To Your Audience?

This month, three big Christian-made films are being released within a two week period.

I Can Only Imagine, the new film by the Erwin Brothers (Woodlawn, Mom’s Night Out) about the life of singer Bart Millard (of Mercy Me fame) is being released on March 15.

Paul, Apostle of Christ, the spring’s annual sword and sandal Bible movie starring Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) as Luke the apostle, is being released eight days later on March 23. [editor’s note: it was originally the 28th, but the date was moved up in February]

And God’s Not Dead 3: A Light in Darkness, the third film in the Pure Flix God’s Not Dead franchise, is being released a week later on March 30.

March 15, March 23, and March 30.

Guys, what are you doing to your audience?

First, it’s important to point out the key audience for these kinds of movies. While the people behind the movies probably hope that the films will be seen outside the Christian subculture, the truth is that all three were custom made for the Big Christian Audience. And if believers don’t turn up for any one of these films, then they will have miserable opening weekends, shortened in-cinema lives, and unfortunate box office returns.

So then why release them so closely together? If all three films are depending on the same audience, why put yourself into a position where you’re forcing that audience to choose between them?

Consider the average costs associated with going to see a film in 2018.

(JACOB AMMENTORP LUND/GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO)

According to Deadline, the average price of a movie ticket last year was about $9.00. Time tells us that the average price of babysitting is about $14.00/hour. And then if you want snacks at the movies, you’ll pay around $5.00 for the restrained purchase of a small drink and $7.00 for an equally restrained small popcorn.

Forget about a box of Junior Mints (another $4.00 if you don’t sneak it in after buying the same box at the Dollar Store for, yes, a dollar).

And then we have the miscellaneous costs. Transportation, parking, and dinner before the movie.

Now, let’s imagine a couple with children decides to support these films, but leave the kids at home. They will potentially spend about $80 each time they go, and that’s not including the miscellaneous expenses. So, if they support all three of these films, they will be spending close to $250 in the month of March in movies alone.

I don’t know any couples with children who budget that kind of money on movies.

Heck, you could pay $12.00 a month for unlimited movies on Netflix, including faith-based movies, all while staying in the comfort of your home eating snacks bought in bulk at Costco.

Samson-Malaysia-PosterAnd guys… all of this congestion… it’s so unnecessary! Looking over the calendar of faith-based films being released this year, there really aren’t that many on the docket. Samson, the last big faith-based release, came out in February, but there aren’t that many big budget releases happening this year aimed at Christian audiences.

And yet, we have these three, all jockeying for position, all wanting the same butts in the seats, and all bottle-necked around Easter.

The Christian faith’s most sacred time of year.

I can only imagine that this blog post will somehow find it’s way to the folks who make these sorts of decisions, and so I’m going to close by addressing them directly. And I’m going to call them Monica and Chandler to make it seem more personal, and because I’m currently binging old episodes of Friends.

Hi Monica and Chandler,

I really appreciate what you guys are trying to do by making and releasing films for Christian audiences. I’m grateful that you are exploring how to use the medium of film to promote the Gospel, and how you are improving the product you release with each passing year. Things really are getting better!

But you really need to do a better job thinking through this distribution thing next time. After all, it’s in your best interest to maximize the return on the investments made by the film’s backers, as well as to give your audience the chance to support the work that you do. It’s like if three studios released three superhero movies at the same time. None of them will do as well as they would have if there’d been some breathing room built into the releases. I don’t even work for Hollywood and I recognize this.

I have to confess – most of us don’t know or understand the mechanics of doing what you do, we just know the finished product. We don’t understand the politics behind the relationships of your companies, we just know that we want to watch what your company produces.

But if you claim to share our faith and share each other’s faith, then you need to work together in this sort of thing. Spread things out. Give us some breathing room. Allow us the chance to get our affairs in order between films. Even though we may not turn up to see your films every time like you’d like, you should really remove all the obstacles that would prevent us from doing so, should we want to.

It just makes sense.

Thank you!

Nate
(on behalf of the Big Christian Audience)

American Cultural Christianity Roundup • the film edition • January 11, 2017

There have been several notable stories in the world of Christian-made film these past few days, and I wanted to summarize a few of them (and comment, of course) for my faithful readers.

1. The Case for Christ

Deadline ran a story this week about the upcoming PureFlix film, The Case for Christ, based on the successful apologetics book by Lee Strobel. The website ran the story with the provocative title, “‘The Case For Christ’ Teaser: Athiest Vs. Believers, From ‘God’s Not Dead’ Filmmakers

Three interesting points about this story.

First, the teaser trailer was actually released several months ago, but Deadline presented it as if it happened in the past week.

Second, while the title of the story is essentially correct, it does seem like Deadline’s editors are trying to stoke some sort of fires through the headline.

Third, I’m quite fascinated by the current trend in Christian-made filmmaking to take a popular book (even a nonfiction, largely non-narrative one like The Case for Christ) or song (see the other stories discussed in this post) and turn them into narrative movies. This seems like a studio mindset sort of thing to do, because it’s safe. Existing properties and familiar names are always the safer bet for box office returns, but doing this with songs seems to be a throwback to the 70’s and 80’s when it was done with some frequency in secular films (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Convoy, Take This Job And Shove It, Harper Valley PTA, Ode To Billy Jo, etc). But it’s something that has fallen out of fashion in recent years.

And while turning narrative books into movies is nothing new, examples of non-narrative books (like A Case For Christ) being turned into narrative movies are a bit harder to find. How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying did it in the late 1960’s, Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask) in the early 70’s, and more recently, He’s Just Not That Into You.

The Case for Christ is a bit different in that the book does contain narrative elements, but the bulk of the book examines the arguments for and against the Christian faith. It’ll be interesting to see how this material is handled in a narrative film.

Meanwhile, if it is successful, maybe we’ll see faith-based filmmaking pick up this trend and make narrative films for other hit non-narrative books like The Prayer of Jabez or Mere Christianity.

2. I Can Only Imagine

dennis-quaid-cloris-leachman

REX/Shutterstock

Speaking of turning songs into movies, the über-successful Christian song I Can Only Imagine is being turned into a motion picture starring Dennis Quaid, Trace Atkins, and Cloris Leachman.

 

For those who live on Mars, or outside the Christian bubble, I Can Only Imagine is a song that was originally released by the Christian supergroup MercyMe in 2001. The song imagines a person encountering heaven for the first time and being overwhelmed by the reality of being with God and loved ones for eternity. While I’ve enjoyed the song from time to time (even if it is arguably one of the most over-played songs in Christian music) I never dreamed that anyone would consider turning the song into a major motion picture.

I Can Only Imagine has a shelf life that other songs can only dream of. Here we are, over fifteen years after the song was initially released, and it remains in the iTunes top 10 Gospel and Christian song list.  The song has also been named the most played single in Christian radio history.

No wonder someone decided to make it into a movie.

To get an idea of where they will be taking this film (which apparently will tell the story of the writing of the song) you can read this article from Christian Post. That article details Bart Millard’s journey to write the song, and the film will undoubtedly explore that time of his life.

While I’m not terribly keen on the idea of turning a hit Christian song into a film, I’ve generally liked the work of the Erwin brothers in the past. So, I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve seen the final product, which is due to hit theaters in Spring 2018.

Now I just need to start working on that treatment for Lord, I Lift Your Name On High: The Film

[By the way, if any of my readers are in Oklahoma City, they are filming the last scene of the movie this Friday at the Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall, and they’re looking for extras. Read more here.]

3. God Bless The Broken Road

The Hollywood Reporter recently posted a story about former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson taking a role in another upcoming movie based on a popular song.

God Bless The Broken Road is also an interesting song-to-movie project, maybe even moreso than I Can Only Imagine, for a number of reasons.

First of all, the song is not a “Christian song”, but a country music song that is being turned into a film that falls into the “faith-based” genre.

Second, the original song (first recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt band, and more recently by Rascall Flatts) was called “Bless the Broken Road”, but the filmmakers added “God” to the title. A small adjustment to increase the appeal to the Big Christian Audience or a more complete title, considering the song lyric is “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you”?

Third, the film is being brought to us by various members of the God’s Not Dead team – director Harold Cronk, actress Robin Givens, producers Troy Duhon and Dustin Solomon, distributed by PureFlix. A filmgoer’s anticipation for this film might be directly impacted by that knowledge – in a good or a bad way – depending on their opinion of the GND movies. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing what this team does with a non-GND property.

Fourth, the description of the film in IMDB ends by saying “…the film combines elements of faith, country music, and stock car racing while paying tribute to those who serve in the United States Military.”

Do these categories represent the new four quadrants in American Christian-targeted filmmaking?

4. The Ark Encounter

Finally, in a non-film related note, this past summer I was able to attend the grand opening of The Ark Encounter in Kentucky. I detailed that visit in a review of my experience which you can read here.

However, the folks at the Ark Encounter recently tweeted an announcement about a new display which will be opening soon.

Yes, it is a viscious dinosaur being released into an arena filled with excited fans, like Gladiator meets Jurassic Park. See my review of The Dinosaur Kingdom II for similar displays.

And that’s all I have to say about that.