HOUSTON -- God's Not Dead, the movie about a Christian college freshman facing off against a bitter, demonstrative, and atheist philosophy professor, is proving again that Christian-themed movies are both popular message-driven features and profitable niche marketing efforts by a variety of studios.
The movie, originally released March 21, has brought in an estimated $48 million so far. But it only cost $5 million to make. Relying heavily on word of mouth advertising from congregation to congregation it has drawn the faithful to movie theaters across the country.
"I think that people are seeking and they're searching for answers," said Jen Driskill the midday DJ at Houston-area Christian radio station KSBJ. "It was realistic in the sense that we don't have to know everything, that we're supposed to walk by faith and that's what he did," she said of the movie's main character.
While the movie is one of the most recent examples of popular Christian-themed films, some movie experts also see the secular business decisions that are helping an industry that is battling against declining audiences in the U.S.
"We have our romantic comedies, our family dramas, we have our animation films and now we have our Christian films," said Joshua Starnes, president of the Houston Film Critics Society.
Big budget movies like Captain America rely on a widespread appeal to make their return on their also massive investments. But Starnes likens Christian-themed films, targeted at a specific audience, the same way he sees Tyler Perry films or even horror films. As Hollywood seeks an increasingly more elusive return on investment, movies targeted at specific audiences are predictable winners.
"What's very funny is those sort of numbers, the only other place you see those sort of numbers are in horror films. So horror films and God films that cost $3 million to make and make $100 million." said Starnes.
But to audiences flocking to movie theaters to see films like God's Not Dead, Heaven is For Real, and Son of God, marketing is of little concern. They say they are making the trek to theaters for the message, one they hope others outside the faith will investigate as well. Son of God, with a production budget of $10 million has made more than $60 million in the U.S. alone. Heaven is For Real, produced for $12 million has made $29 million since its release last Wednesday.
"You know it was kind of how I thought heaven would be like," said Strake Jesuit student George Lawrence after a matinee showing of Heaven is For Real.
"I think it's because no one really knows what heaven is like and they want to understand it better," said student Grace Carter addressing the popularity of the recent slate of Christian movies.
"I think it was just refreshing to see a film that encouraged you to get out of your comfort zone and know that you don't have to have all the answers, it's OK," said Driskill after watching God is Not Dead.
The trend in popular Christian movies is not new. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was a much larger budget movie at $30 million. But it grossed more than $370 million in the United States alone and more than $600 million worldwide. And in addition to the big budget release Noah a remake of The Ten Commandments - Exodus: Gods and Kings starring Christian Bale is slated for a December 2014 release.
If Christian movies are niche marketing as movie critics and Hollywood accountants profess, Christians seem to be OK with the moniker as long as that niche, and the audiences, keep getting bigger.