God's Not Dead, proclaimed the title of one of this year's surprise box-office successes, and it's hard to argue — at least from the standpoint of economic vitality. By itself, director Harold Cronk's film — a drama about a Christian college student who challenges his dictatorial atheist professor — has grossed more than $60 million in the U.S. on a $2 million budget. This despite the fact that the biggest name in the cast is former Hercules TV star Kevin Sorbo, and despite getting reviews like the one from Variety's Scott Foundas, who called it "about as subtle as a stack of Bibles falling on your head."
But if God's not dead at the movies, nor is He alone. The box office has been boosted this year by a spate of modestly budgeted, eminently profitable "faith-based" films, led by Heaven Is for Real ($88 million and counting), Son of God ($59 million) and the family comedy Mom's Night Out (almost $10 million as of last weekend). That's not counting Darren Aronofsky's massive retelling of Noah, a mega-budget Hollywood production that nonetheless had to consider the grass-roots clout churchgoing audiences have shown in recent years.
Faith-based movies are "a growth market both out of Nashville and in general," according to Andy van Roon, chairman of Film-Com. Van Roon is the central organizer of next week's Faith in Film Conference at Lipscomb University, which will gather some of the players behind those films and the growing genre Monday and Tuesday. It's an offshoot of the fifth annual Film-Com conference running this Friday through June 22 at venues across the city — a volunteer-staffed event aimed at raising Nashville's profile as a place to package, distribute and finance feature films and television projects.
Film-Com, with its affiliated events under the FilmOLution umbrella, sets its sights far beyond Christian entertainment. Its tributaries include this weekend's "Score-Com" gatherings for film and TV composers, "Script-Com" panels for screenwriters and industry execs, the Women in Film & Television Academy, and next week's New Project Expo, where filmmakers with projects in various stages of completion will try to hook up with visitors representing financing and distribution entities. (Their ranks include Valkyrie producer Gilbert Adler, Discovery Channel's Kristin Wendell, and John Hadity, vice president of the film-financing arm of global production-management giant Entertainment Partners.)
But the Faith in Film Conference seems especially well-timed, given the box-office pull the genre has demonstrated recently. It's growing, van Roon says via email, in large part "because mainstream Hollywood pix have swung so far to the violent, high-budget special effects-driven product that faith-based films now have the potential to become the new 'family film.' "
"The high-octane thrill rides aren't going away anytime soon, mainly because studios are striving to counteract Web-based and small-screen competition siphoning away viewers and revenue streams," van Roon explains. "[But] parents and a lot of other people are just hungry for the old-fashioned family film that tells a meaningful story about human beings that have some basis in the real struggles, emotions and spiritual questions that we all experience."
Nashville's status as "a global epicenter of contemporary Christian, gospel and country-values music" has enabled it to spread its wings into faith-based feature films, van Roon says. Conference guests include Rich Peluso, the Nashville-based senior vice president of Sony Pictures' subsidiary Affirm Films, the distributor behind Heaven Is for Real and Mom's Night Out; Lisa Arnold, the producer of God's Not Dead (whose success is the subject of a Tuesday panel); and Howie Klausner, the screenwriter of the recent Nashville Film Festival award-winner The Identical, who'll discuss his new feature The Secret Handshake with filmmaker Steve Taylor, whose feature Blue Like Jazz made inroads with secular audiences.
Perhaps the most interesting topic this year is how to expand the audience for faith-based entertainment beyond the church groups who gave early boosts to Tyler Perry and the Kendrick family of Fireproof fame. That will depend, ironically enough, on being able to either transform or escape the faith-based label — a tag that chafes many filmmakers, because it still carries a whiff of separatist or second-tier entertainment. (Mention Christian cinema, and most people think Kirk Cameron, not Terrence Malick.) One feature that will try to reach that wider audience is Affirm's The Remaining, a religious-themed horror movie screening Monday at the conference.
"Realistically, we have entered an era where there will now be numerous indie filmmakers who wish to make earnest, low-budget or micro-budget overt testaments of faith that are just fine with targeting people who are already true believers," van Roon says. "Equally real is that there are filmmakers and film companies out there, and in Nashville, who want to make high-quality general-market works that are spiritually inspiring, cause people to ask profound questions, and make life-altering decisions. The two budget levels and target market types will probably coexist for some time."
There is no ticket price for the Faith in Film Conference, but donations are accepted. For more information on panels, guests and times, see faithinfilmconference.org. More information about all Film-Com business market events can be found at film-com.com.
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