Hollywood Can’t Get an Amen From Church Crowd

On the face of it, Disney’s feel-good drama Secretariat seemed to have all the makings of a hit with the God-fearing crowd: Its writer and director are devout Christians, it opens with a lengthy Bible quote, it uses an earnest spiritual tune at a key emotional moment and it’s uplifting.

Then there was a specific marketing campaign to the faith-based audience, spearheaded by filmmaker Randall Wallace, who has legitimate street cred in those circles.

Yet, Secretariat stumbled out of the gate—like its Triple Crown-winning namesake Thoroughbred never did—with a paltry $12.7 million opening weekend. So what are the film’s odds of turning into a blockbuster? Probably best not to take that bet.

Some industry watchers might chalk it up to Disney’s reshuffled marketing team, headed by an executive who’s never hawked movies before. But others say it’s par for the course when big studios try to reach the so-called “family values” crowd.

Hollywood, long accused of being filled with heathens, just can’t find its religion.

The problem may be that in trying to recreate the massive success of 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, major studios now regularly target the church audience with anything on their slates that they think even vaguely qualifies as spiritual.

Any movie that has a happy ending or a hopeful message gets peddled to Christian leaders and faith-based media. That crowd may be conservative, but they’re not dumb, said entertainment industry veteran and marketing consultant Mark Joseph.

“The traditionalist audience is far more savvy, post-‘Passion,’ and is tired of being told that ‘Polar Express’ or ‘Rocky VI’ are actually allegories about Christ,” said Joseph, also a film producer who’s worked on The Passion of the Christ and other marketing campaigns. “This group is suspicious of Hollywood.”

A former studio marketing executive agreed, saying there has to be an organic link to the religious crowd. “You can’t sell them just anything because they’ve gotten very weary and wary of Hollywood—they’ve started feeling used,” said the unnamed executive. “You don’t get the enjoy the benefits of those organizations if your movie has a tenuous connection to them.”

There are times when carefully constructed marketing campaigns to this audience can work. Examples include The Blind Side and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But that’s because the content spoke to the spiritual crowd.

There’s also an issue in when and how studios try to communicate with the faith-based audience, industry watchers say. Church leaders need to see full movies six to nine months ahead of launch, Joseph said, because that crowd needs more time to mobilize. Studios—notoriously protective of their product—don’t like to do screenings that far in advance.

“You don’t reach the traditionalist audience by putting up some billboards and throwing your stars onto Letterman and Leno a few nights before release date,” Joseph said. “And you have to show the movie in its entirety long before opening.”

Studio executives have called The Passion of the Christ a fluke. That may be because they haven’t been able to replicate it, Joseph said. The R-rated, ultra-violent drama raked in $611 million worldwide and sold 4 million DVDs in one day. But Joseph doesn’t believe it’s a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, and Hollywood could have other monster hits on its hands with church folks.

Doing so, however, would require movie marketers to “rethink everything and start from scratch in terms of the stories they choose and how they reach people with the story about the story,” Joseph said.