LOS ANGELES – Faith-based movies that succeed at the box office shouldn't be a surprise anymore, but "War Room," a Christian family drama about marriage, has proved to be somewhat miraculous.
After "War Room" nearly beat "Straight Outta Compton" in its opening weekend, it defied expectations in its second week in theaters and rose to the top spot over the holiday weekend. Its strongest day wasn't the opening either. It was Labor Day — a full 11 days after "War Room" was released — that saw the most people buying tickets.
"That's just not supposed to happen," said Rich Peluso, senior vice president of Sony's AFFIRM Films, which produced "War Room" with Provident Films. "I could certainly fudge it and tell you how smart we are and how we predicted this but no, everybody is surprised."
This is the latest success from Christian filmmakers and brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, whose 2008 film "Fireproof" earned over $33 million on a $500K budget, and 2011's "Courageous," which took in $34.5 million on a $2 million budget. "War Room" is already well on its way to surpassing both.
As of Tuesday, "War Room," which cost $3.5 million to produce, has earned $28.7 million.
Many are seeing it multiple times and bringing back their family and groups of friends, Peluso said. Also, when the film came so close to beating "Compton," there was a concerted effort by AFFIRM and religious leaders to encourage supporters to turn out and help make it No. 1.
"It's just a great story of a film that really filled a void in the marketplace, with a message that the audience could really get behind," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box office tracker Rentrak.
"There is a huge contingency of the American population who do not go to movies. They have been burned too many times," Stephen Kendrick said. "Christians love good movies, but too often their faith is ridiculed or mocked... Alex and I are trying to make the kind of movies that we want to go see."
The perception that successful faith-based films seem to come out of nowhere is born out of the reality that they are very difficult to track accurately. Days before a film's release, most studios have a solid idea of exactly how its film will perform opening weekend. Faith-based audiences prove more elusive to traditional metrics.
"Tracking does a really good job of looking at frequent movie goers and what their interests are. With faith-based films, we're bringing infrequent customers into the theaters," Peluso said.
To generate buzz about "War Room," all parties relied on the traditional grassroots marketing techniques that have proved successful for other Christian films, including longstanding relationships with religious leaders nationwide. One effort involved organizing a free date night for pastors and their wives to see the film in its entirety, so that they could choose whether or not to endorse.
Both Peluso and Kendrick partially attribute the wild success to prayer, too.
"We have learned that if you pray first the outcome is so much better," said Kendrick, an ordained minister and member of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, where he and his brother create videos to support ministry needs. "This entire movie has been prayed over from beginning to end. We're seeing it now with what is happening — there are no Hollywood stars in the film, Alex and I are unknowns. We don't live in Hollywood. We haven't been to film school. But we have prayed and prayed that God will use this film to inspire people to begin to pray."
"War Room" also boasts a primarily African American cast, which isn't the norm for Christian films.
"(The African American community) so embraced it because it was just an American family, period. There were no race issues. It just was a great opportunity to engage in a beautiful story," Peluso said.
Their strategy now is to keep the buzz going while the movie enters more markets. "War Room" will add more than 115 screens this weekend and will likely continue expanding. Internationally, the film is boasting record numbers in Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand, and soon it'll be released in Canada and South Africa. Plans also include more mainstream marketing, securing Christian radio play for the film's song "Warrior" and capitalizing on the fan testimonials that now populate the film's social media pages.
But while the financial success shines a spotlight on the film and spreads awareness to a broader audience, for Kendrick, money isn't the point.
"We don't make movies to win awards and, actually, making money is not the priority either," he said. "We are ministers and our goal is to inspire people with a message of faith, hope, and love that will hopefully draw them into a better relationship with God."
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr