The unexpected box office success of “The Blind Side” in 2009 has the film industry hungry for the next faith-friendly blockbuster – that unique movie that galvanizes a Christian audience and brings whole families into the theater.
The true-life story about a woman horse breeder, played by Diane Lane, who defies the odds to create a Triple Crown winner, has the kind of inspirational story that Disney is banking will appeal to the same faith-based audiences that turned “The Blind Side,” produced by Warner Bros., into a $250 million blockbuster.
Disney has been marketing “Secretariat” to the Bible Belt by organizing special screenings of the film, which hits theaters on Oct. 8, for Christian bloggers, reviewers and influencers, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
They have also produced special marketing materials for the audience. Screening invites sent to non-religious outlets described the film’s story in purely secular terms. But for the benefit of Christian reviewers, the invitation goes on to add that “The movie is directed by Randall Wallace….Not only is Randall one of the most successful directors of all time, he is also a devout Christian.”
So is Disney pandering to Christians, or is their outreach seen as a positive step by religious audiences?
At least one faith-based filmmaker doesn’t begrudge Disney its marketing strategy. “There is plenty of room in this market for films that share our values. It’s nice that the mainstream studios have realized that there is a big niche of the population that is looking for movies with a positive and inspirational message,” said David Evans, the director and producer of the faith-based drama “Grace Card.” “The demand for quality faith-based content is just continuing to grow. We know we’ll see more movies being made in the mainstream that cross over and hopefully more movies in the faith-based market cross over for secular audiences.”
But just because a movie has religious themes does not mean a religious audience will come. The formula for a cross-over hit that straddles both the mainstream and faith-based audiences is something that movie studios are still trying to nail down.
Marketers tried to nudge a Christian movie-going pilgrimage to the apocalyptic flop “The Book of Eli,” which featured Denzel Washington as a Bible-carrying loner on a mission to protect the holy book from the forces of evil. But while that film had an obvious Christian message, it was also littered with violence, foul language and sex that turned off the faith-based audiences.
“Secretariat” has none that baggage, and all of the real life inspirational drama that helped catapult “The Blind Side” to number one at the box office, and win an Oscar for its leading lady, Sandra Bullock.
“There are movies that appeal to a faith-based audience because they include faith, and movies that appeal to a faith-based audience because there is an absence of ‘bad,’” says Kris Fuhr, the vice president of marketing for Provident Films, a faith-based film distributor. “Secretariat is a good and wholesome story that appeals to a faith audience because it includes both.”
Randall Wallace, the screenwriter of "Secretariat" and “Braveheart” and the director of “We Were Soldiers,” has been open about talking about his faith in connection to the film. He recently gave an interview to HollywoodJesus.com while promoting “Secretariat” where he discussed Jesus’ unique way of telling stories.
“Jesus didn't argue doctrinal questions whenever he was asked a question," Wallace told the website. "He almost always responded with story -- because the stories carry more truth than our philosophical arguments do."
A rep for Disney said the studio does not comment on its marketing strategies, and declined a request to speak to Wallace.