How 'I Can Only Imagine' Became a Breakout Indie Hit

I Can Only Imagine Still 12 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions

The faith-based film, which has grossed $71 million so far on a $7 million budget, has been a boon to Roadside Attractions and its investors.

Sony’s AFFIRM label just didn’t have much faith when it came to the film I Can Only Imagine, twice letting the Christian-themed breakout get away. Instead, the Dennis Quaid starrer has become Roadside Attractions’ highest-grossing film ever, with a $71 million box-office haul to date, far eclipsing the specialty label’s previous high-water mark, Manchester by the Sea.

Sony originally developed the faith-based film — which chronicles the true story behind MercyMe’s chart-topping song of the same name — but walked away from the project in 2015. So producer Kevin Downes bought the rights and — along with directors Andrew and Jon Erwin — raised the film’s $7 million budget and $12 million prints-and-advertising spend through a network of wealthy and anonymous Christian investors who sparked to the film’s uplifting message.

In August, Imagine’s grassroots marketing team — led by WTA Group’s Kris Fuhr — found that the film’s test scores were far exceeding expectations, just as Downes and the Erwins began shopping it to distributors. AFFIRM was one of four companies to make an offer, but it was not nearly as aggressive as the one from Roadside (Sony was looking to own a significant chunk of the film, says a source).

“When we shopped it around, we didn’t have many takers because most of the distributors in town thought that a Christian music biopic wouldn’t exactly sell,” says Downes. “We respectfully disagreed.”

In addition to Roadside and its partner on the film’s acquisition Lionsgate, Imagine’s filmmakers and backers stand to reap big rewards and already are exploring ideas for a sequel. As for why the film, expected to top out at around $85 million-$90 million domestically, connected with theatergoers, Fuhr, who began targeting churches and ministries nearly a year ago to build awareness, says it was a built-in brand waiting to be exploited.

“For 17 years, this has been the most popular song for people of faith — played at weddings, when soldiers come home — and people have just been waiting for it to be put on the big screen,” she says.

Fuhr, who previously worked on the campaigns for faith-based breakouts War Room and Heaven Is for Real, says Roadside proved to be a particularly collaborative distribution partner.

“They let us do what what we’re good at,” says Fuhr. “They gave us the freedom and never dictated how we should do things.”

Adds Roadside founder Howard Cohen: “They were tacticians the way they approached this film, and they created a really interesting, thorough and successful blueprint. The results have been tremendous.”

Ironically, Sony Music was involved in the song’s distribution back in 2001, making it a missed synergistic opportunity for the studio all the way around. 

A version of this story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.