At one time, the strategy for getting the attention of faith-based movie audiences was pretty straightforward: build a grassroots marketing campaign focused on certain congregations and churches, bus them to movie theaters, and let word of mouth build.
It was a model that led to numerous religious-themed movies having impressive opening weekends at the box office, most notably Mel Gibson’s epic depiction of the final hours of Jesus Christ, “The Passion of the Christ,” which is still the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time.
With the rise of streaming, there have been obvious tweaks to faith-based marketing, but those who work in this part of the film industry have also seen a change since President Donald Trump started running for and then won the White House.
‘There’s riches in the niches’
“What’s shaking out since Trump is that people don’t trust institutions. They don’t trust the top-down, they want stories that are real and honest,” marketer and producer Erik Lokkesmoe told Business Insider. “It’s a feeling of, ‘Don’t tell me it’s simple and easy.’ The audience we’re serving now knows issues are complex.”
Lokkesmoe says the days of just going directly to community leaders, librarians, teachers, and pastors to get the word out about a movie are over. He observes that within the Christian audience, there are now subgroups, all with different beliefs and tastes. As he puts it, in today’s faith-based market, “There’s riches in the niches.”
How to find the ‘Trump audience’
One obvious niche that everyone is trying to cater to at the moment, of course, is Trump’s base. Though Lokkesmoe says it’s still too early to get an exact read on the president’s most ardent supporters, he has seen what kind of power they can give to a project.
The documentary “Is Genesis History?” explores how the world intersects with the history recorded in the Book of Genesis. It was released as a Fathom Events one-night special in late February and earned $1.8 million on just 704 screens. It was the top-earning theatrical release that day (a Thursday), beating out “The Lego Batman Movie” and “Fifty Shades Darker” (both of which played on more than double the number of screens as “Is Genesis History?” did).
“That is clearly a Trump audience,” said Lokkesmoe. “The feeling of ‘We’re under siege, our beliefs are being attacked, let’s get together one night and confirm our beliefs.’ That’s very much a Trump mentality.”
But it’s not just the theatrical realm seeing a Trump bump. Those who keep any eye on the burgeoning streaming market for faith-based titles have noticed more passion online.
Michael Scott is the CEO and cofounder of Pure Flix, which is considered the Netflix of the faith-based market. He has observed a liveliness from his customers since Trump got into office.
“I feel some of the audience feels beat down a little bit by some of the media and now it’s their chance to be more open and comment about the movies and talk about the movies,” Scott told Business Insider. “That’s the environment now. There’s more openness to talk about faith-based films.”
Pure Flix currently has over 5,000 titles available to stream (ranging from features and TV to preaching and teaching content), and the company also produces its own titles (its latest, “The Case for Christ,” stars Erika Christensen, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Forster, and it opens in theaters April 7). Though Scott says business has continued to thrive on the streaming side since his company started in 2015, that’s not necessarily because of current events. As he sees it, you still have to tell a specific kind of story for the faith-based audience.
“One of the key reasons why people come to faith-based films is because of the message,” he said. “You have to drive the message first and then wrap an organic story around the message. If you are leading with just a great story then they could see a Hollywood release.”
That formula worked well for releases like 2015’s “War Room,” which focused on a troubled family finding strength through prayer and went on to earn over $11 million to win its opening weekend. And this year’s “The Shack,” starring Octavia Spencer as God, took in over $16 million to come in a respectable third place its opening weekend (and it’s earned close to $54 million worldwide to date).
Scott said that’s why you shouldn’t expect upcoming faith-based movies to revolve around political issues of the day like the Trump travel ban or other stories coming out of his administration.
“Maybe those would be dealt with in a subplot in a movie,” said Scott, who noted that Pure Flix’s 2014 film “God’s Not Dead” did feature a Muslim family.
Making the faith-based movie bigger
It’s hard to see the “message-first” formula changing. But in the Trump era, there’s a new group being forged out of the faith-based market: what’s known as the “aspirational” audience.
These are people who want to engage in the content beyond the theatrical or TV experience. That could include buying the book that a movie or show is based on or starting community outreach.
“The aspirational audience is not the Trump voter,” Lokkesmoe said. “They are more artistic, younger, and less political.”
But Lokkesmoe said the aspirational audience has grown up in an era when they are inspired to make change. His company, Aspiration Studios, has recently built campaigns focused on this audience for Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” and the upcoming TV show “Genius.”
Scott noted that Pure Flix is looking to launch a separate division that will focus on the aspirational market with movies that are budgeted between $10 million and $30 million and have A-list talent attached (its current films are made for between $4 million and $7 million).
Lokkesmoe said that’s the biggest takeaway so far from the Trump era: There’s more interest in feeding content to a particular audience than ever before.
“We’re seeing a lot more funders and people thinking beyond how to find an audience that is out there for whatever topic or issue,” he said. “There’s more interest in that than ‘Let’s make one movie that’s going to change the world.'”