Movies aimed at religious audiences have come a long way since the cheesy special effects of 1956's The Ten Commandments.
The latest biblical blockbuster, Noah (from Viacom's (NASDAQ:VIA) Paramount), brought in a higher-than-predicted $44 million in domestic box office while scoring another $51 million in its first week overseas, Forbes reported. Another religiously themed film, the low-budget God's Not Dead, is also doing well at theaters -- it opened two weeks ago to $9.2 million and showed a surprisingly small drop to $8.7 million in its second week. The strength for the latter is surprising not only because it's theoretically competing with Noah for viewers, but because movies aimed at the religious crowd often behave like horror movies at the box office with strong openings followed by huge drop-offs.
How is Hollywood reaching the religious audience?
Noah is the exception to the path most films of this genre have taken. For starters, it boasted a $125 million budget, Forbes reported, and was not pre-marketed to church groups. The makers of a number of films with religious themes -- including Freestyle, the small distributor behind God's Not Dead -- have attempted to rally the troops by aggressively pre-selling tickets and arranging group outings to the theater.
God's Not Dead was so heavily pre-sold that it was the number three movie on Friday, though it finished the weekend at number five in its first week, Moviefone reported. The first week numbers aren't that shocking as lots of other religiously themed movies have used that strategy, but its staying power is. There have been exceptions to the rule that religious films open strong and drop off heavily -- Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ grossed over $600 million globally, according to Deadline -- but most usually follow that path.
It's time to stop being surprised
Every time a movie that's outside the traditional Hollywood formula succeeds, the entertainment press always seems shocked and the success is cast as a fluke. Whether it's a raunchy comedy with female stars such as Bridesmaids or a genre film that makes more money than expected, even repeated success does not always lead to Hollywood recognizing that conventional wisdom as to what makes a hit may be wrong.
The case has been building for movies with religious themes with limited star power. Not every one released has been a success, but a number of them have including 2008's Fireproof which starred Kirk Cameron. That film had a $500,000 budget raised from churchgoers that ended up grossing $33.4 million, Deadline reported. The same company hit again in 2011 when Courageous, which had a $2 million budget, made $34.5 million.
There are many more examples, and while there have been failures -- The Nativity Story in 2006 only made $46 million globally on a $30 million budget -- but enough movies of the religious genre have been hits that it shouldn't be viewed as an oddity or a surprise anymore.
Can there be too much of a good thing?
Hollywood appears to have caught on. In addition to the already released Noah, God's Not Dead, and Son of God (which was a hit earlier this year), a number of religiously themed films are set for release. These include Sony's (NYSE:SNE) Heaven Is for Real, which stars Greg Kinnear -- a bigger star than Cameron but not an A-lister -- and Moms' Night Out from Affirm Films, a sub-label of Sony that "typically gears its features toward evangelical Christians," according to Deadline. That movie stars Patricia Heaton, Sean Astin, and country singer Trace Adkins -- all names but certainly not major movie stars. In December Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) joins the fray with Exodus -- a big-budget film with certified star Christian Bale and director Ridley Scott.
There have clearly been enough successes in the genre for Hollywood to try to see just how much money it can make. But whether the success continues with more product on the market remains a question.
"As far as sustainability and profitability, it's hard to say because of the differences in the budgets," Fox marketing executive Chris Aronson told Deadline. "There are plenty of examples of faith-based films that have been smartly marketed and targeted to a faith-based audiences that have been successful... You can't pull the wool over the faith-based audiences eyes because they will see it and reject it."
It's easy to say that audiences will eventually reject the films if they aren't good, but Tyler Perry has proven that audiences like when films address their interests, even when those movies are not very good. Quality matters when you have to recoup a $125 million budget on Noah, but not so much when you have a cheaper film starring lesser-knowns.
Hollywood will push too far
Sometimes when Hollywood finally grasps that a certain type of movie has an audience, it responds by paying too much attention to the group it previously ignored. Think of all the lousy R-rated comedies that followed The Hangover and you quickly realize that there can certainly be too much of a good thing.
The challenge of marketing to an audience based on beliefs is that you walk a very thin line between appeasing that audience and telling a story that can cross over to a broader market. There is clearly a demand for these movies, but aside from blockbusters like Noah, which also appeal to traditional movie fans, there may prove to be a ceiling on how many religiously themed films can do well in a year. That might be a growing ceiling as getting people into the habit of going to theaters tends to be good for movies in general, but there is a ceiling.
Hollywood should address this audience and not back away after the first flop. The industry needs to find the balance of exactly how big the potential is because as we have seen with markets like the one for family films, too much competing product can drag everything down. Muppets Most Wanted and Mr. Peabody & Sherman would have made more money if they had not been released so close together. The same is likely true for religious genre films, even if two are currently doing well at the same time.
The line between too little and too much can be a very difficult one to navigate. The coming year will have enough films in the religious genre to show whether there is a long-term market for this type of film or if marketing gimmicks and addressing an ignored audience only goes so far.
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.