God quietly rules the box office

A movie you may have never heard of has quietly made a fortune at the box office. The budget of the Christian indie film "God's Not Dead" was dirt cheap relative to other films atop the box office charts.

The production budget was less than $3 million, but faith-based movies have a way of making good money using unconventional marketing, all while flying far below the mainstream radar. The film itself is fairly conventional, structured a bit like a boxing movie, except the hero and villain are a Christian student and his skeptical philosophy professor. Rather than a ring, their climactic battle is a classroom debate over whether God exists.

Most critics, including some Christians, have been dismissive of the film. But that’s had little impact on its appeal. In part, that’s because the Christian filmmakers knew their audience and how to craft a story they would respond to. As if for good measure, they also threw in cameos from a popular Christian band and even members of the “Duck Dynasty” family.

The way films like this become hits is more about what happens off screen: the film’s low-key, but highly targeted marketing got pastors around the country to endorse the film. A thumbs up from the clergy meant their congregations bought advance tickets and filled buses to go see it, some traveling long distances.

“A lot of the success has been solely because of churches that have gotten behind this movie,” says David A. R. White, who produced and starred in the film. “In fact, we had almost a million dollars in presales before we even opened.”

That set up an opening weekend shocker. The tiny film grossed $9.2 million, showing up on box office charts just behind the lavishly promoted “Divergent” and “Muppets Most Wanted.”

One number in particular caught Hollywood’s eye. The movie was in a small amount of theaters. But it was raking in nearly $11,000 per screen, well ahead of expensive blockbusters. It also performed well in small markets. Theater owners took notice and the film has expanded to more theaters ever since stunning the movie industry on its opening weekend.

“’God’s Not Dead’ is one of the films that we will point to to say that this is a great genre, faith-based films are here to stay,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at box office tracking firm Rentrak.

Drawing more Christians is one way Hollywood aims to get closer to its object of worship: money. The big-budget “Noah” got a mixed response. But “God’s Not Dead” has movie producers faithful and godless alike, taking notice and taking notes.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter for Marketplace and substitute host for the Marketplace Morning Report, based in New York.

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