Box Office: 'I Can Only Imagine' Revives Faith-Based Genre

The $7 million indie movie dramatically overperformed in its U.S. debut, coming in not far behind the big-budget 'Tomb Raider' reboot and beating 'A Wrinkle in Time' and 'Love, Simon' in a surprise upset.

In 2014, faith-based films made headlines at the U.S. box office, prompting pundits to declare it the "Year of the Bible." God's Not Dead, for example, earned $61.7 million against a $2 million budget, while Heaven is for Real soared to $91.4 million against a $12 million budget.

Film companies responded by flooding the market with faith-based titles, but the results were decidedly mixed between 2015 and 2017. God's Not Dead 2 topped out at $20.8 million domestically in spring of 2016, 66 percent less than the first movie.

So when it came time for I Can Only Imagine to open in theaters on March 16, no one gave the the $7 million indie film — which tells the story behind the best-selling Christian song of all time — much thought. (Tracking services suggested the Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate release would come in at $2 million-$4 million.)

That is, until I Can Only Imagine dramatically overperformed in opening to $17.1 million from 1,629 theaters, upstaging the glory that was expected to have belonged to Warner Bros. and MGM's big-budget Tomb Raider reboot, which launched to a muted $23.6 million. And I Can Only Imagine handily beat the $11.8 million opening of Fox 2000's YA adaptation Love, Simon — the first film from a major Hollywood studio featuring a gay teen protagonist — as well as the second weekend of Disney's A Wrinkle in Time ($16.3 million) in a surprise upset.

The good news continued on Monday. I Can Only Imagine earned an estimated $1.7 million, almost as much as Tomb Raider ($1.8 million), and not that far behind Black Panther ($2.2 million). On Friday, the movie will be playing in a total of 2,230 theaters.

"It definitely shows that if you build a good movie, this audience will come out," says Roadside co-president Howard Cohen, noting that I Can Only Imagine is Roadside's biggest opening in history. Roadside partnered with Lionsgate in acquiring the U.S. rights to the movie after it was completed.

The film stars J. Michael Finley as the real-life Bart Millard, the lead singer of the Christian band MercyMe who wrote "I Can Only Imagine." The song recounts Millard's relationship with his once-abusive father, played in the film by by Dennis Quaid, and ponders what it would be like to be in heaven standing before God. "I Can Only Imagine" was first issued as a track on MercyMe's 1999 album, The Worship Project, then recorded for the 2001 album, Almost There.

Millard, a Southern Baptist, helped publicize the film, including promoting the title during MercyMe's latest tour. Roadside's marketing campaign also included a major push on Christian radio, while a trailer for the movie played before Lionsgate's inspirational movie, Wonder.

"The power of grassroots marketing, consisting mainly of a strong and enthusiastic endorsement from influencers (clergy, etc.) to their respective congregations in the faith-based community, is not to be underestimated and likely had a huge impact on the performance of the film. This has been true of virtually every successful faith-based film in the modern era," says box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of comScore.

Quaid, one of several mainstream stars who has appeared in a faith-based film, was also a key part of the marketing campaign, says Cohen. And Roadside's decision not to make the film available to reviewers in advance certainly didn't hurt. And once critics did see the film, many embraced it, resulting in a "fresh" 67 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Better yet, audiences bestowed I Can Only Imagine with an A+ CinemaScore. Ticket buyers skewed heavily female (67 percent), while 80 percent of the audience was over the age of 35.

I Can Only Imagine scored the fourth-biggest domestic opening for a faith-based film behind Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ ($83.8 million), Son of God ($25.6 million) and Heaven is for Real ($22.5 million). It was directed by faith-based filmmakers and brothers Andrew and Joe Erwin, whose previous credits include Woodlawn, which topped out at $14.3 million in 2015, and Moms' Night Out, which earned $10.4 million in 2014.

Breakout faith-based titles have been few and far between the past several years. They include Lionsgate's The Shack ($57.4 million), Sony/TriStar's Miracles from Heaven ($61.million) and Sony/TriStar's War Room ($67.8 million). 

"After a bit of a dry spell in the wake of 2014's so-called Year of the Bible, I Can Only Imagine became a divine overperformer in a weekend where big-budget blockbusters like Black Panther and newcomers like Tomb Raider and Love, Simon received all the attention," says Dergarabedian. "Now, this underestimated faith-based film is rightfully upstaging some of its higher profile box-office brethren."

Adds Andrew Erwin, “God’s hand has been on this song and on this story from the beginning. We are delighted to see a story about forgiveness and redemption connect with so many people. We are humbled for the privilege of telling Bart's story.”