Faith-Based Films at Cannes: Is the Fest Having Its "Come to Jesus" Moment?
After years of being virtually ignored by the market, Christian-themed hits are converting international dealmakers into true believers (even in China).
Have the French found God?
Given the crop of projects being shopped at the Cannes film market that features Christian-themed narratives — notably An Interview With God, Samson and God Bless the Broken Road — and with Wim Wenders’ doc Pope Francis: A Man of His Word playing as an official selection at the festival, there are signs that fare once ignored by international buyers and Cannes programmers is receiving a warm welcome.
In addition, the U.S. breakout I Can Only Imagine is heating up the market, with Lionsgate scooping up rights for China, a once unthinkable territory for a faith-based film. The project’s producer Cindy Bond is selling overseas territories through her Mission Pictures International and has landed deals here on the ground for the U.K. (The Lighthouse Alliance) and Poland (Kino Swiat) after selling the film pre-Cannes in Latin America, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany, Singapore, Australia/New Zealand, South Africa, Korea, Russia and the Middle East. She is now negotiating for Scandinavia and Benelux.
Though I Can Only Imagine is the highest-grossing 2018 indie in the U.S. — with an $82 million haul so far — it doesn’t appear to be an outlier. An Interview With God, which stars David Strathairn and Brenton Thwaites, also is finding traction with foreign buyers. Film Bridge International’s Ellen Wander, who is selling the feature, is in the process of closing deals for the U.K., Australia, the Philippines, Germany and Latin America.
“When I was first approached to take on this movie, I felt reluctant because I thought, ‘Oh, my god, there really isn’t an evangelical community outside of the United States,’” says Wander. “But we’ve been getting interest from places like China — I never would have thought that — Japan, the U.K., spots that typically don’t respond to these kinds of films.”
Broken Road, which is getting a wide release in the U.S. in September via Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios, is being shopped at the Cannes market by American Cinema Inspires and doing brisk business. That film centers on a young mother who loses her soldier husband in Afghanistan and struggles to raise their young daughter in his absence.
“We think the market is evolving into faith-based 2.0, where it crosses over more in terms of cast and story,” says Entertainment Studios acquisitions head Chris Charalambous.
Pure Flix/Quality Flix’s Ron Gell says Samson already is sparking far more interest than his previous hit, God Is Not Dead (2014), which was distributed by Allen’s Freestyle Releasing. “Compared to God Is Not Dead, this film definitely has a wider global appeal because it’s seen not just as a biblical or faith-based story, or a mainly American story, but as an action-adventure film.”
But perhaps the biggest hurdle Christian-themed films have overcome in Cannes is garnering love from festival brass.
Wenders noted that religious faith has a tradition in European cinema that is rarely seen in the art house today.
“Look at the movies of Ingmar Bergman,” he says. “They are so Protestant! Or [Robert] Bresson, who is so Catholic. But that [was in] the ‘60s, ‘70s. Today you find far fewer films that have outspoken Christian connotations.”
That, though, might be about to change.
A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 9 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.