2014: Unbelievable Christian Film’s Weird, Successful, and Horrifying Year

Here at TMT Headquarters, we receive a lot of pleas and pitches from filmmakers and production companies. While perusing through my emails from editors, only one has ever stood out and made me think about anything beyond the film in question. The press release was sent by the Utah-based producers of Wayward, a contemporized revision of the Prodigal Son parable:

With the success of faith-based box office hits like “God’s Not Dead” ($61 million box office) and “Heaven Is For Real” ($91 million box office), one might think that everyone loves faith-based movies. Critics and audiences, however, are not always on the same page. RottenTomatoes.com, a website offering film approval ratings and viewing advice, published opinions about last year’s faith-based movies that oppose those of their audiences. A quote or two from Mark Twain comes to mind: “The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all,” or, “I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value — certainly no large value.” For example, “Son of God” received only a 21 percent approval rating from critics and yet a 74 percent approval rating from audiences. Similarly, “God’s Not Dead” received a paltry 17 percent approval rating from critics while an astounding 83 percent of audiences approved of the movie. “Heaven Is For Real” did better with critics (46 percent approval rating) but much higher with audiences (71 percent approval rating). “Meet The Mormons” received 1 nod out of 9 reviews while the public that reviewed it on Rotten Tomatoes approved it by 92 percent.

When I first read it, I was appalled. This attempt to appeal to critics was a middle finger poking below the belt. Who did this hack think he was fooling? But as my editor pointed out to me, maybe there’s some truth to it, and after viewing and researching the many faith-based films of 2014, I realized that it was true: critics don’t just “not get” these films; they outright loathe them.

I can commiserate; viewing the aforementioned faith-based films, and many others, was a grueling process I wouldn’t project upon anyone. When I finally saw the last film on my list, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, I felt like a squandered month’s worth of tongue-biting was purged via gleefully maniacal (or maniacally gleeful) laughter. These films are condescending, manipulative, hokey, occasionally offensive, and financially successful. The press release, however, nudges forth a wholly depressing truth: in any mainstream genre, not specifically Christian, the audience always wins, yet no other genre’s prosperity from a given year has so strongly reminded me of how true that statement is.

2014 is the most successful year for faith-based cinema in a decade, and no amount of negative reviews can change that.

The Number Games

Still from Randall Wallace’s “Heaven Is For Real”

According to Box Office Mojo, three films from 2014 cracked the top 10 Christian films list: Heaven Is For Real, God’s Not Dead, and Son of God (numbers 5-7, respectively). In the top 20 were When the Game Stands Tall (#12), Left Behind (#14), and Mom’s Night Out (#19). A total of 14 films from 2014 were in the top 100, pulling in a domestic sum of ~$275 million, the highest in 10 years, not counting the Disney-produced Narnia films. (The #1 film remains Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ at ~$300 million, or about ~$600 worldwide, so let’s consider it a tough act to follow.) Even major studios got in on the fun: 20th Century Fox and Sony distributed Son of God and Heaven Is For Real (the latter being an opportunity to plug Spider-Man). Although not made by or for Christians, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah reignited the biblical epic (without a Steve Carell in sight) to the tune of $325 million worldwide, and we’re still awaiting Ridley Scott’s Exodus, a big-budget retelling of the Moses saga, to arrive this month.

Meanwhile, non-mainstream arthouse films about faith and religion came and went: Nothing Bad Can Happen, Calvary, and The Overnighters. Unbothered with cornering a market, these outliers represent the ever present, striking contrast. Unlike the mainstream fare, these films weren’t swimming in the self-righteous fantasia most Christian films portray; these were real downer jams that graced the surface before plunging into the unplumbed depths of human misery. Each of their protagonists met some sort of doom in the end, with the morals and lessons learned being harsh and pragmatic. In short, these films didn’t stand a chance to share the same successes as their crowd-pleasing adversaries. These pictures would play at film festivals with weird words like “Cannes” and later in “fruity” metropolises to the drooling smarty-pants four-eyed goons. Out of my window, I can almost hear the Gregorian chant of “suck it” emitting from the Christian studios’ offices.

Christian Films Are Horrifying

Still from Christopher Spencer’s “Son of God”

I’m struck by how similar the Christian and horror genres are, and not just because when they achieve astronomic receipt numbers, it’s often in spite of critical consensus. Both thrive on independent productions and studio releasing. Both have a vibrant home video market. Both share an interest in afterlife mythology. Both genres are ripe for crossover (Blood Freak, The Exorcist, this year’s The Remaining). Both have a fascination in and fear of the unknown. To get more specific, the heavenly dimpled witness in Heaven Is For Real speaks more articulately than most 40 year olds when he’s not smiling like The Omen’s Damien. Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas is padded with slow-motion dancing little girls and face-first nosedives into presents that wouldn’t look out of place in a Lynchian nightmare.

There’s even something to be said about the way both genres validate violence, whether self-inflicted or outward, in the name of good: The glorification of Christ’s death as a reason for faith. Father Karras’s violent suicide in The Exorcist. The daughter in Heaven Is For Real punching a pair of playground bullies, a move doted on by her pastor father. One of Saving Christmas’s major points is the validation of St. Nicholas, who kicked ass for the Lord, justified by Cameron shrugging, “There was no time for political correctness back then.”

Most notably, both genres thrive on reboots and the perpetuation of familiar characters. Son of God (dir. Christopher Spencer), the first Christian-produced hit of the year, is also the first Jesus-centric theatrical release since The Passion. Pieced together from 2013’s wildly successful The Bible miniseries, Son returns the Christ story to a vanilla 0-90 demographic friendliness. Some writers remarked on producers Mark Barnett’s and Roma Downey’s (who plays Jesus’s mother Mary) opportunism in filling the void in theatrical Christian entertainment, its wide releases few and far between. As television gains cinema-quality entertainment, why not capitalize off it? They did, and they saw that it was good.

If Gibson’s take on Christ fetishized exploitation-level gore, then Spencer reclaims its wholesomeness, rescuing its young audience from early-onset trauma. Downey and Barnett focus on the miracles and selflessness that led him to martyrdom, not the gory details. It was a creative step backward for this slate-cleansing epic, and churchgoers were so OK with it that, after a long absence, they gladly forked over $67 million worldwide. Not bad for a film made for only $22 million.

Text Everyone You Know: Criticism Is Not Dead

Promotional image for Harold Cronk’s “God’s Not Dead”

Critics were less impressed. The typical heavy handedness they’d come to despise was beyond stale and derivative, and once you’ve seen and enjoyed Willem Defoe in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, you tire of a confident, undoubting Jesus. The very negatives that critics bemoaned seemed exactly what audiences wanted: faith-affirming celebration for the whole family. Darren Aronofsky’s gritty special-effects epic Noah fared better with critics and overseas markets, pulling in only $100 million domestically, but Son of God’s success is more impressive because of its niche marketing and demand from American audiences. Even though Noah’s numbers were higher, Son of God made more than triple its budget back, while Noah made just under that much. Plus, Son of God was strategically released one month before Noah, creating a battle of Biblical proportions: the Christian literalism vs. the atheist-helmed revisionism.

As impressive as Son of God’s success was, it couldn’t compare to its closest allies: the contemporary morality plays, the most frequented sub-genre of the Christian film industry. Released one week before Noah, God’s Not Dead (dir. Harold Cronk; released by Pure Flix, the people who brought you Holyman Undercover) became the most panned extra-padded religious debate of 2014. When critics want an example of Christian cinema at its meanest, smuggest, and hokiest, here’s their greatest proof. It’s essentially Sunday school-ready Oscar-bait: a young, unwavering Christian (Shane Harper) debates God’s existence with a pretentious philosophy professor (Kevin Sorbo), told through Magnolia-style “everything is connected” interweaving, reaching its climax when every student stands up, one by one, to declare, “God is not dead.” Oh, and then Sorbo gets fatally hit by a car and only dies after accepting Christ when receiving his last rites (yet another instance in which violence is perpetrated to serve the message). As if it couldn’t be more imposing, the film ends with some words of encouragement flashing across the screen: “Text everyone you know - ‘God’s Not Dead.’” Clearly, the filmmakers made the assumption that its entire audience and everyone they knew would be receptive to such a text. Because, I mean, come on — nobody would be offended by that. It just raises the film’s thesis that not only should you believe there’s a God, but there’s no room for agreeing to disagree.

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