Watching Jesus Revolution surge past $45 million in ticket sales for Lionsgate—matching or besting The Fabelmans, The Banshees Of Inisherin, Tár, Women Talking and Triangle Of Sadness, combined—it finally seems safe to say it. The faith-based audience is back.
Between Covid and the culture wars, it’s been a rough few years for those who make, promote and/or enjoy what are loosely called inspirational films. Sometimes the pictures are overtly religious, as with Jesus Revolution, the real-life story of a pastor and his counter-cultural following in the 1970s. Others are simply aspirational—moralistic, values-laden tales, like Creed III or Respect, about individuals striving to be more and better than they already are.
Either way, the uplift business was having tough time until Top Gun: Maverick broke through, at the strictly secular level, last year. The last explicitly religious film to top $40 million at the box office appears to have been Breakthrough, from Fox, in 2019. In 2021, especially, darker fantasies—Spider-Man: No Way Home, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Black Widow—prevailed. (Though the fairly inspirational but box office-deprived CODA slipped into the Oscars.)
Anyway, it’s nice to have the faith crowd back in seats.
Before the great lockdown and simultaneous socio-political eruptions over issues like abortion and gender identity, left-leaning Hollywood had seemed to be finding common ground with more right-leaning religious conservatives who are a mainstay of the inspiration market.
In early 2016, while still reporting for The New York Times, I actually spent several months trying to map the often hidden interface between conventional movie companies and those tens of millions of mostly Christian, faith-oriented viewers. Working in loose partnership with fellow reporter Brooks Barnes—though the obsession was mine—I invested a fair amount of energy and Times capital in getting to know dozens of people who were quietly trying to reconcile movies and matters of the spirit.
It was a fascinating tour. I remember having lunch with the quite secular producer Joe Roth, who explained that in making a film like Miracles From Heaven, he didn’t have to believe what his collaborators believed, but he had to believe that they believed. A few days later, I spoke with Roth’s fellow producer Bishop T. D. Jakes, who was stunned to learn that Roth had once been a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that banned school prayer. They had too much common ground to worry about their differences.
The most interesting operatives were those being hired by studios to find and promote faith-aligned values in seemingly areligious mainstream films like Frozen, Sully, Hidden Figures or Twelve Years A Slave. Even a film as unlikely as Room, about the close confinement of a kidnapped woman, had its faith campaign. Until the culture boiled over with the 2016 election, movies were important to the religious audience, and that audience was important to the movies.
The Times project, intended as a three-part series, more or less imploded when I left the paper in the summer of 2016. Brooks picked up the theme, and wrote a fine piece, which was published on Dec. 25 of that year (with, as I recall, an illustration that featured a weirdly incongruous Christmas Day crucifix).
As for the producers and consultants who had been building bridges—Roth, DeVon Franklin, Corby Pons, Marshall Mitchell, Jonathan Bock, Matthew Faraci, Ted Baehr and others—they didn’t evaporate. You can still find most of them, doing the same work, with a simple Google search.
But they seemed to pull back a bit, to go quiet while the movies became darker, angrier, and less prone to inspiration.
Perhaps until now. If the faithful are back in the theater pews, amen. Some uplift is in order.