Why Religious Movies Are Luring Mainstream Stars

'Miracles From Heaven'
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Low budget and low risk, the genre is growing and attracting known names (Jennifer Garner, Ewan McGregor), yet still finding a very fine line between box office hit and thumbs-down heresy.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Hollywood has rediscovered religion. While movies long have trafficked in biblical epics — Paramount is readying the third big-screen Ben-Hur for August — a new wave of inspirational movies is hitting theaters this Lent. Some offer new takes on the gospels, while others serve up contemporary tales in which God intervenes in human events. And many are attracting stars and filmmakers who in the past wouldn't have given such projects so much as a prayer.

Producer Joe Roth recalls how, in 2013, when he was assembling Heaven Is for Real, he met resistance. "At that time, if the casting agent says, 'I want Brad Pitt,' his agent says, 'No, no. He'd never do a faith-based movie.' There was definitely some of that," says Roth.

Nonetheless, the filmmakers and Sony Pictures enticed Greg Kinnear — an actor not known for outspoken religious views and, more importantly, one with a track record of mainstream studio and indie movies — and the $12 million film grossed $101 million worldwide. Two years later, putting together Sony's Miracles From Heaven (March 16), another film with Christian themes, Roth and producer DeVon Franklin got their first choices to headline: Jennifer Garner and Queen Latifah.

Notes Roth, "Agents may be cynical, but they know the color of money."

Once the domain of Christian conservatives with dwindling name value like Kirk Cameron and Kevin Sorbo, faith-based films no longer are radioactive. They may not yet be attracting the Brad Pitts, but they are featuring actors who are not without choices — and these days, faith-based movies are a viable choice. David Oyelowo and Kate Mara teamed in 2015's Captive, a thriller in which they discover redemption. Ewan McGregor lent his name to the upcoming Last Days in the Desert, in which he plays Jesus. Also on the horizon, Renee Zellweger headlines Paramount's Same Kind of Different as Me, in which she plays a dying woman whose husband makes a spiritual connection. Such films hope to build on their appeal to Christian audiences — with marketing that courts influential pastors and church groups — by adding more familiar stars.

Self-identified Christian moviegoers — though often infrequent ticket-buyers — can be a powerful force when they do show up, as they did in 2004, when Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ grossed $612 million worldwide. But in the ensuing years, studios largely stayed out of the game.

"The Hollywood community has historically viewed faith films through a political lens," says Franklin, who explains that faith isn't political, it's personal. "So you wouldn't get the Hollywood community to support this and put their clients in a film. But over the years, that stigma has diminished."

Sony, where Franklin was a production exec and which established in-house label Affirm for faith-based films, has pursued the rising genre aggressively, releasing a string of low-budget movies that have produced solid returns like Heaven Is for Real, the $3 million War Room ($68 million worldwide), the $18 million Soul Surfer ($47 million worldwide), the $2 million Courageous ($35 million worldwide) and the $15 million When the Game Stands Tall ($30 million worldwide). Affirm's Rich Peluso, whose background includes a 15-year stint at EMI Christian Music Group, spearheads the studio’s faith-based efforts and has forged strong connections with megachurch influencers.

Now others are getting into the act. Upstart studio Broad Green, which acquired Last Days in the Desert after its 2015 Sundance debut, will release the drama May 13 and plans to market to both religious and mainstream audiences.

But even with more marketable star names, faith-based films face a challenge — Heaven Is for Real, for instance, drew much of its audience from the Bible Belt, cities in the South, the Midwest and in rural California. They also risk alienating the core audience if their stories don't toe the doctrinal line. Two years ago, Chris Stone of the Christian marketing group Faith Driven Consumer took aim at Paramount’s Noah for taking too many liberties with the biblical text, creating a headache for the studio. Even when the faithful do embrace a film, the returns can be lackluster. Focus' The Young Messiah, based on Anne Rice’s evangelical-minded novel about Jesus’ boyhood, opened to $3.3 million over the March 11 weekend.

Given the potential liabilities, one agent for up-and-coming stars says he will wait for a few more hits. "I wouldn't put my young clients in a faith-based film, even one with a great script," says the agent. "It's still seen as polarizing."

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