The story of this past weekend’s box office is, of course, a story of absence, as theaters closed or reduced capacity and moviegoers stayed home thanks to the spread of the coronavirus. With domestic ticket sales totaling a mere $55.3 million, movies had their dimmest weekend, financially speaking, since September 2000. Adjusted for inflation, that puts it in the running for the worst weekend box office since the beginning of independently compiled box office data in the 1980s.
Somewhat lost in that story, and understandably so, has been the relative success of I Still Believe, an inspirational film starring Riverdale’s K.J. Apa. With a weekend haul of $9.5 million, it fell just a million shy of besting Pixar’s Onward in its second week and edged out Bloodshot, a new action film starring Vin Diesel.
Assuming it had been released during a normal box office weekend, the numbers might have varied, but the results likely would have been the same. In no universe is Apa a bigger star than Diesel, but it wasn’t Apa’s stardom that pushed I Still Believe to its (relative, given the conditions) success. I Still Believe arrived with a built-in audience familiar with its already-successful filmmaking team of brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin; the hit contemporary Christian Jeremy Camp song from which it takes its title; and the true-life story it recounts, that of Camp and his first wife, who died from cancer mere months after their marriage. For consumers of faith-based entertainment, it’s a blockbuster release.
Beyond the well-established viability of faith-oriented fiction and music, Christian-themed films have enjoyed tremendous success at the multiplex, particularly in the years after The Passion of the Christ became a runaway blockbuster in 2004. The Erwins’ 2018 film I Can Only Imagine, whose title is also taken from a hit contemporary Christian song, earned $83.5 million at the box office in 2018. Home viewers have options as well, most prominently Pure Flix, a Netflix-inspired streaming service that’s home to films like Saved by Grace, series like Hitting the Brakes and other projects that, if you squint, wouldn’t look out of place on a more mainstream streaming service.
Those on the outside looking in might not understand how all-encompassing the world of faith-based entertainment can be. (Alison Willmore’s sweeping 2019 survey of just the film wing of the industry for BuzzFeed provides some sense of its scope.) But what’s it like to be on the inside looking out?
“I remember being intrigued, but also rather holier-than-thou about the whole thing (in the way that only an evangelical teenager can be),” says Jessica, a 27-year-old former 911 dispatcher who grew up immersed in the world of faith-based media. “Part of me wanted to engage with media from the secular world (frankly, because it looked/sounded a lot better than the faith-based options), but part of me was content to bear the cross of only watching/listening to faith-based things.” Yet as appealing as the mainstream world might have looked, Jessica had no shortage of movies and shows to watch.
Though her parents allowed her to watch some secular entertainment (mostly classic Disney movies), she took them in alongside films like Fireproof (a marital drama starring Kirk Cameron), Flywheel (the story of a car salesman whose newfound faith makes him change his cheating ways) and Facing the Giants (an underdog sports movie with a Christian message). Her parents had to preview the latter to make sure it was, in her words, “extra Christian.”
All three of those films come from director Alex Kendrick who, with brother Stephen Kendrick, runs Kendrick Brothers Productions, a dominant force in faith-based filmmaking with a history of crossover success. But the Kendricks aren’t an isolated case, nor are faith-based films limited to earnest dramas. Jessica recalls being particularly taken with the 2002 film Time Changer, a lighthearted (but serious-minded) time travel story directed by Rich Christiano (whose brother, Dave Christiano, also directs Christian films; the field seems to invite family efforts). For Jessica, it was part of an entertainment diet that included music from artists like Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman and Casting Crowns; novels from Bob Jones University Press; and the Focus on the Family-produced Adventures in Odyssey radio dramas. Collectively, they create an entertainment world from which the faithful never have to venture unless they want to.
But what if they want to? Brian, a 32-year-old law student, remembers getting a taste of forbidden fruit in the form of a PBS special celebrating the music of film composer John Williams. “Oh, man, it was great,” Brian recalls. “It was interspersed with clips from the films he scored. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jaws, E.T. and the like. It was one of the more vivid memories of my childhood. Hearing that music, catching short, tantalizing glimpses into something like an alternate reality that was filled with a score of possible worlds.”
It was also a world he wanted to explore more and found a point of entry in the unlikely form of Toy Story. “When Toy Story was released, it was off-limits. We didn’t go to the theater back then, but even if we had, the film was a no-go because, and I quote, ‘Woody has a bad attitude.’ But for whatever reason, I decided I had to see this movie. After its home video release I went to a friend’s house to spend the day and watched it there. Fatally, I also had my younger brother with me, and he ratted me out. I think I was grounded. I was probably around 11 at the time.” The transgression also led to a lasting shift, however. “There was no immediate change in policy,” he says, “but it was like the first break in the dam.”
Aiding that break was the introduction of Clean Films, a service that removed family-unfriendly sex, violence and language that allowed Brian and his family to watch censored versions of films like Braveheart and Gladiator. (Though now-defunct following copyright infringement lawsuits that forced its closure in 2006, Clean Films’ legacy lives on via features like the Walmart-owned video-on-demand service Vudu’s “Family Play” option, which glides past potentially objectionable material in almost 1,800 films, including titles as diverse as Last Christmas, Patton and Glass.) For Brian, this peek at non-faith based entertainment proved irresistible.
“By the time I moved out of the house, went to college (the first time) and eventually got married, the bubble had really softened,” he remembers. But the bubble hasn’t necessarily popped. “Some films and shows I just avoid, generally if there’s rampant or gratuitous nudity or sex, nonstop strong language or it’s just particularly gory or sadistically violent,” Brian notes. “For instance, I don’t watch Game of Thrones, or the Saw films. I do watch John Wick, so maybe I’m less scrupulous than I imagine.”
Brian went on to become a Baptist minister but later broke with the church in favor of Eastern Orthodoxy. That shift, and the accompanying crisis in faith, didn’t coincide with him looking beyond the world of faith-based entertainment. By contrast, Luke, a 27-year-old film journalist, sees his own changing interests as part of a pattern, one he tried to hide from others at the time. “My trajectory was actually backwards,” Luke explains. “I became more strict and fanatically devout than my parents (who were never either of those things) as I grew up. By the time I was in high school I was still watching and listening to all kinds of things, but I’d been appointed the worship leader of my youth group and I developed a very high-and-mighty attitude, that was accompanied by bingeing Hillsong and other contemporary Christian artists and attempts to shirk all R-rated movies and explicit albums, which were always relatively unsuccessful (because I didn’t realize how good diverse, thought-provoking art was for me at the time) despite my publicizing them as staunch stances.”
Luke would go on to study theology as both an undergrad and a graduate student, and though he no longer identifies as Christian (“I would identify as an agnostic existentialist,” he says) he still understands the appeal. “I was always fascinated by how the Christian church should function socially,” he says, “and I believe everything social is political. […] I’m still fascinated in the question around how the church should socially function, recognizing that Christians will always be a major, influential group of people as long as I’m alive.”
It’s a question at the heart of faith-based films that take on hot-button issues like abortion and the alleged free-speech abuses claimed to marginalize evangelical Christians. Perhaps best exemplified by the popular 2014 film God’s Not Dead (and its less popular sequels), such films are one of three distinct strands — political, biblical and inspirational — identified by Vox critic Alissa Wilkinson (raised in a conservative Christian household that largely forbade mainstream entertainment, Wilkinson’s one of the few critics who’s engaged extensively with faith-based films, which tend not to be screened for critics). Of the three, the inspirational has become the dominant strand, but its stories of God-assisted triumph over adversity are no more inviting for those outside the faith than the other branches. In Wilkinson’s words, “They’re less about evangelizing than about bolstering a faith that already exists. In other words, they’re usually successful because they preach to the choir.”
But do they have anything to say to those who’ve left the choir behind? “I’m encouraged when I see faith-based producers like Erik Lokkesmoe (producer of the 2015 film Last Days in the Desert) who sees his vocation or work as producing compelling stories, rather than furthering an agenda,” says Brian. “I like that a lot more than what I see from producers like the Kendrick brothers and their vein of evangelistic media. I did really enjoy the film Believe Me that came out a few years ago and thought it was well done, but that’s the exception to me. I sat through a church showing of God’s Not Dead and absolutely hated it.”
By contrast, Luke finds little of value in the faith-based films he encounters now, calling it, “truly the most egregious, unaware, desperate, meritless, pandering and spiritually empty art I encounter on a semi-regular basis.” Jessica has found her own return equally uninspiring. “I found myself watching Breakthrough last year (I’d exhausted everything else in the theater),” she says, “and couldn’t help but wonder what someone who wasn’t familiar with evangelical Christianity, or otherwise steeped in faith-based media, might think about it. I found myself growing increasingly disgusted as I entertained this little thought experiment. […] It struck me as an incredibly narrow, genie-in-a-bottle, pray-and-it-will-all-be-okay approach that simply doesn’t fly in today’s world — and if anything, I think could be seen as insensitive to the real struggles of real people.”
Her objections, however, have just as much to do with aesthetics as messaging. “In my experience, most faith-based films just aren’t good art, which frankly ticks me off,” she says. “Though I would now consider myself more of a hopeful agnostic than a Christian, it puzzles me that Christians who believe that God made the whole freakin’ world as beautiful as it is can turn out such consistent mediocrity.”