Hollywood looking for boxoffice miracles

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Ever since Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was crowned with a domestic gross of $370 million in 2004, Hollywood has been genuflecting in the direction of the newly discovered faith-based audience.

Last year, Buena Vista courted Christian audiences for its mainstream release "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Last month, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment an-nounced a new label, FoxFaith, that will release faith-based films theatrically and on DVD. And in December, when studios usually release secular-themed holiday movies full of Santa Claus and mischievous elves, New Line Cinema is taking a religious path with "The Nativity Story," director Catherine Hardwicke's take on the story of Mary and Joseph.

But it's not just the major studios looking for manna from heaven. In fact, indie producers and distributors already are discovering that there is a receptive audience able to produce reliable and solid boxoffice results. And they are reaching that audience without the help of major Hollywood stars or the usual publicity ploys.

Look no further than "One Night With the King," which recounts the biblical story of Esther, and "Facing the Giants," an inspirational tale about a Christian high school football coach.

"King," which will be released on DVD by FoxFaith, does have supporting turns from Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole, but its lead role is played by Tiffany Dupont, graduating from work in television. Nevertheless, it bowed Oct. 13 to a strong $4.1 million in 909 theaters. Despite an absence of stars, the indie release attracted a per-theater average of $4,518 and ranked No. 9 among the weekend's top 10.

To achieve that minor miracle, the film's producer Gener8xion Entertainment and its distributor Rocky Mountain Pictures didn't go through the usual Hollywood marketing channels but instead turned to priests and ministers to endorse the film.

According to Richard Cook, one of "King's" producers and executive vp at Los Angeles-based Gener8xion, promotional efforts focused on a three-week screening tour nationwide, showing pastors and ministers a 25-minute version of the film.

"It really helps to go through the church," Cook said. "You know they will appreciate the message of the film, and you lean on that heavily."

That tour crossed 19 cities and 13 states and reached 5,000 church leaders. Most of the marketing budget of $6 million — paid for by a private investor whom Cook declined to name — was earmarked for the tour. But Gener8xion also advertised in mainstream newspapers and basic cable channels. "We were not afraid to show the movie," Cook said. "We also did a lot of press screenings and sent screeners out to all the major cities."

The film's opening gross surprised even the most seasoned exhibitors. Regal Entertainment Group, which generated 30% of the film's boxoffice from 260 runs, was astonished by the film's playability.

"I'm looking at all the numbers, and I'm not pulling any one thing out that shows a trend," said Ted Cooper, head film buyer at Regal. "Whether it was an upscale suburban neighborhood or a downtown urban theater, all played pretty equal and pretty strong."

According to Regal, on a state basis, Arizona scored the highest with a per-screen average of $7,573, followed by Virginia with and Washington, indicating that interest spread across the traditional red state/blue state divide.

"You would have thought that the Bible Belt would have played best," said Cooper, adding that theaters in Tennessee placed at the bottom of state rankings by screen average. "My instinct is, we're getting patrons that may not frequent the theaters. I'm very excited about as many faith-based films that come out as possible. To me, this is found money. This audience hasn't found product they deem acceptable or educational, and this just hit the bull's-eye."

According to Slaughter of Rocky Mountain, the indie distributor hired by Gener8xion Entertainment, the fact that "King" performed stronger in Philadelphia and New York than similar films in the past represents a greater countrywide interest in faith-based films.

"I think the market is expanding," said Slaughter, who released Gener8xion's "The Omega Code" and "Megiddo: The Omega Code 2." "When we first did these movies, they would do business in the South and the Midwest. Maybe today there is a little more acceptability. When we can do business in Philly, that means there is a market there that I really didn't know existed (for these kinds of films)."

Gener8xion isn't the only company to take advantage of this burgeoning market. Samuel Goldwyn Films and Destination Films, a niche distributor owned by Sony Pictures, prospered from the recent release of "Giants." Produced by Sherwood Pictures, part of the media ministry of the Albany, Ga.-based Sherwood Baptist Church, the film was made on a limited budget with a cast and crew of volunteers.

But "Giants" has earned more than $4.4 million in three weeks of release. Playing at its widest point on 441 screens, the movie centers on a losing high school football coach whose life turns around after he puts his faith in God.

"What is unique about faith-based films is they don't accept traditional marketing approaches and don't trust Hollywood," Samuel Goldwyn president Meyer Gottlieb said. "You have to have pastors and ministers see the movie and convey that the marketing materials are exactly what you see on the screen. We created an honest marketing plan, and they are responding. We are delighted."

Goldwyn, through its IDP distribution arm, opened the movie nationally but intentionally stayed out of the big markets. For example, it avoided Los Angeles but bowed in Orange County, Calif., which, according to Gottlieb, has a large evangelical Christian audience. Since its opening, "Giants" has expanded geographically but has not increased its number of screens. The company is now considering expanding the film to bigger markets that wouldn't normally respond to such a film.

"There is clearly a huge audience that is underserved with the kinds of programming they want and with programming that supports their lifestyles, that supports family values," Gottlieb said.

Gener8xion already has begun preproduction on "Blessed Child," a film about a boy who has the gift of healing.

And this time around, it said, it may even try to attract the involvement of Hollywood stars.
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