Faith-based filmmaking isn’t dead. While the genre has struggled recently to turn out crossover hits (and nothing has topped the $611M take of Mel Gibson’s controversial smash hit “The Passion of the Christ,” still the top earner in the genre 14 years after its release), brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin’s latest film, “I Can Only Imagine,” surprised this weekend’s box office with a $17 million opening take, good enough to push it to third place in a crowded field. Among contemporary Christian community titles, only “Heaven Is for Real” had a better opening, scoring $22 million when it opened in 2014.
Other faith-based movies have recently faltered at the box office, making the success of “I Can Only Imagine” as a bit of an outlier in a struggling — and often independently made — genre. The last big Christian-leaning hit to crack $100 million at the domestic box office was 2010’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the third film in the series and its lowest-grossing entry (the film made $104.3 million when it hit theaters in December of that year, less than half of what the first film made five years earlier). Other offerings have posted respectable box office takes, including “Heaven Is for Real,” “War Room,” and “The Shack,” but there hasn’t been a box office hit for quite some time.
Until now. In just one weekend, “I Can Only Imagine” has nearly cracked the top 20 of all Christian films released since 1980. It may soon have some other competition, though. In the lead-up to Easter Sunday, the box office will play home to another pair of faith-based features, marking March as the month for such films (there are just five “Christian” films on the docket so far this year, and only two of them didn’t make grab Easter-adjacent release dates).
This week, Sony’s Columbia Pictures arm will release its historical drama “Paul, Apostle of Christ” in 1,400 theaters. Despite the title, the film has been marketed as something of a two-hander between a pair of Jesus’ best-known followers, the eponymous convert Paul (played by James Faulkner) and his close compatriot Luke (played by Jim Caviezel, well-known for his turn as Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ”), picking up after the death of Jesus Christ.
As is often the case with movies that appeal to faith-based audiences, the official website is already touting sales for group tickets, including a page for such purchases that allow groups to buy out whole theaters and showtimes.
“Paul” will face off against a number of other mainstream wide releases, however, including “Pacific Rim Uprising,” “Midnight Sun,” “Sherlock Gnomes,” and “Unsane,” along with indies “Final Portrait” and “Isle of Dogs.” And, unlike “I Can Only Imagine,” it doesn’t come with a more contemporary edge, something that another title set to open this month might be able to capitalize from.
That one is Pure Flix’s “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness,” which will receive a wide release, and marks the third film in the faith-based distributor’s series about Christians who have their faith challenged in different arenas (the first one was about a college student whose beliefs are tested by a professor, while the second film moved a similar narrative to a high school setting). This new film will follow an entire congregation who struggle after its church burns down. The first film, released in 2014, was a big hit for the distributor, pulling in nearly $65 million in total ticket sales, against a slim $2 million budget.
Like “I Can Only Imagine,” it was a “surprise” breakout hit at the box office, where it faced off against mainstream titles like “Divergent” and “Muppets Most Wanted,” coming in third in its opening weekend.
It was, of course, no surprise that a sequel was soon greenlit by Pure Flix, and “God’s Not Dead 2” rolled out two years later. While that movie made its money back — nearly $25 million against a $5 million budget — it was hardly the same runaway hit as its predecessor. “A Light in Darkness” arrives two years after that film, and appears to be capitalizing on the current political climate, with marketing that plays up the power of protesting, questions about free speech, and the challenge of respecting other people’s beliefs. While it follows both “I Can Only Imagine” and “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” it may luck out with its Easter-adjacent release date (hitting theaters on March 30, Good Friday) and a relatively quiet release calendar (the only other wide release set for that same weekend: “Tyler Perry’s Acrimony”).
It’s also going all-in on luring big groups, offering up links to both group sales for opening weekend and special “pre-release movie events” on March 27 and 28, days before the film opens to the public.
In October, Pure Flix will release another sequel, “Unbroken: Path to Redemption,” a Christian-leaning follow-up to the Angelina Jolie-directed Louis Zamperini biopic “Unbroken.” None of the Jolie film’s original cast or crew is involved with the film, which follows the war hero upon his return to the States after being held as a prisoner of war during World War II and his eventual turn to born-again Christianity. (It’s also not the first Zamperini film to focus on his post-WWII life: In 2015, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association released its own documentary about his later years, many of them spent following the recently deceased Evangelical Christian minister).
While “The Passion of the Christ” continues to rule as the biggest Christian hit — from an indie distributor to boot — to ever hit the box office, it’s trailed by the trio of “Chronicles of Narnia” movies, which round out the rest of the all-time top four. Those movies were based on the beloved novels by C.S. Lewis, and notably, “I Can Only Imagine” bested yet another big screen adaptation of a beloved faith-based children’s novel when it beat Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” at this weekend’s box office.
Despite the faith-based background of the Madeleine L’Engle book series that inspired the Disney film, DuVernay’s feature mostly strays from the Christian messages at its heart (L’Engle’s work has often been compared to Lewis’ faith-inspired work), instead opting to embrace a more wide-ranging message of love and acceptance, questions of faith aside.
That wasn’t an accident. As Jennifer Lee recently told IndieWire:
We’re in a different place now, 50 years later…A lot of ideas are evoked, but not through one specific lens. Madeleine loves science. I love quantum physics and cosmology; that was my way in. Science has come so far since then. It’s about evoking that weird, wonderful universe, not trying to literally recreate the singularity that was L’Engle’s way in.
DuVernay’s film has so far made just under $72 million in worldwide receipts against its much-touted $100 million budget, so it’s telling that it was beaten in its third week by a smaller-scale Christian film: Could the Disney film have fared better had it leaned into its origins and made a play for faith-based audiences?
The “Narnia” franchise may have slowed down after its own diminishing returns, but even that series is poised to rise again in its hopes of capturing the undeserved kid-centric segment of faith-based moviegoers. Joe Johnston has been tapped to direct a fourth film, “The Silver Chair,” meant to serve as a reboot for the series. It’s not dead yet.
Additional reporting by Tom Brueggemann.