NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Producers of faith-based movies have a message for Hollywood studios: Make the movies and customers will pay to watch them.
The enormous success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004 shocked Tinseltown when it grossed $611 million worldwide. Despite the huge profit, the production of faith-based movies became stagnant, arguably because of low box office numbers.
Support for such films has picked up in recent years with the success of movies like "Fireproof" in 2008 and now this year's "Jumping the Broom" and "Soul Surfer."
"Fireproof," about a couple's struggle to save their marriage, cost $500,000 to make and earned about $34 million domestically. "Jumping the Broom" focused on forgiveness and the attempt by two families to meld despite their differences. It was made with a budget of a little over $6 million and has taken in about $37 million since it hit theaters in May. "Soul Surfers" cost $18 million to make and has brought in more than $42 million since its release in April.
Backers of faith-based movies say the figures indicate people are turning out for films that reflect their beliefs and they don't expect the support to wane.
"I think everything is just kind of happening at the right time," said Sony vice president of production DeVon Franklin, who bought the "Jumping the Broom" script and put the movie together. "There's a demand for the films. They're proving that there's a business here. And I think that's what Hollywood is seeing."
Hollywood.com box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian said there has always been an audience for faith-based films that was underserved for many.
"I don't think that was deliberate," he said. "I just think that generally speaking these movies have a particular audience that is very interested in something that either has a positive message or something that resonates with the faith-based audience."
Some faith-based movies, like "Fireproof," were created specifically for a Christian audience. Others are mainstream movies with a broader spiritual message, like "Jumping the Broom" and "Soul Surfer," which is based on the true story of a teen surfer who lost her left arm in a shark attack and depended on her faith to recover and compete again.
"Fireproof," which starred former 1980s heartthrob and devout evangelical Christian Kirk Cameron, showed that even Christian movies can go mainstream and its producers have a movie coming out later this year called "Courageous" that focuses on fatherhood.
"'Courageous' is dealing with ... a man's role of being a father, a husband," said Rich Peluso, vice president of AFFIRM Films, a faith label of Sony that helped market "Fireproof" and will also promote "Courageous."
"The story has a much wider reach and we think it will have a much wider impact."
Bishop T.D. Jakes, chief pastor of The Potter's House church in Dallas and one of the producers of "Jumping the Broom," agreed that part of the success of faith-based movies — regardless of who they're targeting — is that they often deal with universal topics like marriage and fatherhood.
"We have the same challenges. We deal with the same issues on a continual basis," said Jakes, who has agreed to co-produce a movie to be adapted from the popular Christian book, "Heaven Is For Real."
That appeal may also be the reason "Jumping the Broom" has been so well received despite its predominantly black cast. With the exception of movie mogul Tyler Perry's franchise, movies featuring mostly minorities have struggled at the box office. While not considered faith-based, many of Perry's movies do contain spiritual connotations.
Franklin said he believes most people who patronize faith-based or inspirational films are "colorblind" to the people in them, and drawn more to the therapeutic message they convey to overcome tough times.
"They do provide hope, and inspiration and encouragement in a time that's very difficult," said Franklin, who's written a book titled "Produced by Faith: Enjoy Real Success without Losing Your True Self"
"I do think when you see these films it does inspire you to keep going, and to keep pushing. So I think that's part of the reason they're very successful."
Producers say the best way to get Hollywood's attention is for fans of the genre to show up the first weekend the movies open. To get the word out about "Jumping the Broom," Jakes said marketing strategies involved screenings for hairdressers, barbers, pastors, churches and social networking — including a lot of Twitter posts.
"I had everybody tweeting about this, from P. Diddy to Joel Osteen," he said.
Tirrell Whittley heads Liquid Soul Media, which has won awards for its grassroots approach to marketing movies. He said attending opening weekend is vital.
"We have to show up and make sure that our dollars speak and say that these films are important," Whittley said. "There's a lot of tracking and analysis done against these sales to determine what consumers want."
Producer Stephanie Frederic said for Hollywood, "It's business."
"People think Hollywood is all these anti-Christians," said Frederic, whose company shoots behind-the-scene footage for movies. "No, Hollywood is just pro money. It's that simple."
The success of faith-based films also means opportunity for up-and-coming producers and actors. Terverius Black started his own Christian-themed entertainment company and is hoping to release his movie "Stand" early next year.
"There are some talented people out here who just need a shot," said Black, who has several other scripts in waiting.
Trey "Andale" Williams, an actor in Black's movie, is hoping for a blessing.
"If people are actually going out to the theaters to see these movies, then more of them will be made," Williams said. "It benefits so many different people."
Lucas Johnson II can be reached at http://twitter.com/LLJohnsonAP