Top 10 Film Industry Stories of 2011: #9

God and the (Movie) Machine

By David Mumpower

December 26, 2011

Avoid sharks. Surf on land.

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A few years ago, a conservative newspaper requested an interview with BOP regarding faith-based cinema. There was a one night special theatrical event featuring a popular faith-based speaker who has since been disavowed for his *ahem* extreme political views. The primary question for the interview was simple. “Is this the only way for Christians to make headway with faith-based cinema in an industry dominated by Hollywood’s largely secular themes?” We passed on the interview due to the writer's *ahem* extreme political views but the question itself was a good one.

Historically, Christian cinema has not proven popular to the degree that mainstream Hollywood films have. Given that Gallup and Pew polls have suggested that 78% of Americans self-identify as Christian (and in the interest of full disclosure for this article, I am one of them), the disconnect between those of faith and the lack of popularity of faith-based cinema is at least to some degree illogical. What is noteworthy about 2011 is that four different projects with such subject matter all became modest to considerable box office hits. This is new.

The first noteworthy title was released in April. Soul Surfer is an $18 million production from Mandalay Pictures and FilmDistrict. It tells the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a champion surfer who lived through a shark attack. Before she was able to escape its jaws, the beast dismembered her shoulder. In the wake of the tragedy, Hamilton questioned the existence of a benevolent deity before finally placing faith in God that there was a reason for her suffering.

No matter where you stand on the subject, there is no disputing the fact that starting with her 2004 autobiography, she has been an inspiration to others. In fact, ESPN gave her the ESPY for Best Comeback Athlete, an almost incomprehensible award for a 14-year-old to receive. Given the truth is stranger than fiction aspect of Soul Surfer, its box office performance should not be surprising. After debuting to a solid $10.6 million, the movie demonstrated strong legs on its way to $43.9 million in domestic revenue, more than double its production cost. Soul Surfer has proven quite popular on home video as well, earning another $13.7 million through that avenue.

Less than a month after the popularity of Soul Surfer, an even cheaper production managed impressive results. Jumping the Broom is a story about a frustrated woman who makes the determination that premarital sex without love is a mistake she needs to quit making. She embarks upon a new relationship but under the condition that the new relationship be chaste. And if this doesn’t sound like a religious enough premise for you, I would also mention that minister and bestselling author T.D. Jakes co-stars in the film.


Jumping the Broom was one of a trio of wedding movies inexplicably released in a two week period. While this comedy certainly did not do as well as its more storied counterpart, Bridesmaids, it was still a remarkable performer relative to financial outlay. Created for a modest $7 million, the movie debuted to more than double that total, earning $15.2 million on its way to an eventual domestic tally of $37.3 million. To place this performance in perspective, consider that the other wedding debut that week, Something Borrowed, grossed a similar $39.0 million but cost five times as much ($35 million) to produce.

September marked the release of twin faith-based movies. Dolphin Tale is a true life story regarding an injured dolphin facing amputation of her tail. Her injury mirrors that of a returning war veteran and during his meeting with a doctor, an artificial limb is mentioned that would coincidentally work for the dolphin as well. This surgery not only provides Winter the dolphin with the ability to survive in the water but also proves inspirational to other victims of limb loss in real life as well as in the movie. The story of Winter is already a southern legend and perhaps this explains why it has the largest production budget of the faith-based films discussed here, $37 million. It is also the most lucrative performer, earning $71.5 million domestically and roughly $90 million worldwide to date.

The fourth faith-based movie of the year is the greatest triumph in terms of return on investment. Courageous is the latest production from Sherwood Pictures, a Georgia religious film initiative. Following on the heels of their celebration of faithful firemen, Fireproof, this story details the lives of police officers struggling with the complexities of their profession as well as the impact it has made on their lives. Produced for a negligible $2 million, Courageous opened to $9.1 million on its way to a final domestic total of $33.6 million.

Anything that returns a factor of 16 against its upfront cost the way that Courageous has is obviously a huge win, but the bigger story here is the totality of the four films. They cost $64 million to create, an average of $16 million per title. Their accumulated North American total is a majestic $186.3 million, over $120 million more than their aggregate production costs. And the average of $46.6 million per title is a full $30 million in revenue over production cost.

After years of wondering whether faith-based cinema could succeed at the box office, 2011 finally provided the answer, an emphatic yes.



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