January 1, 2007
Laurie Foos, a student at Pasadena's Fuller Theological Seminary, figured that she didn't need to rush out to see New Line Cinema's "The Nativity Story" in its first week. She waited until her kids came home from college, venturing to the theater on Christmas Day, nearly a month after the movie opened. But by then, "Nativity" was out of her local multiplex in Ventura.
"It was the perfect day to see it but they had pulled it from the theater," said Foos, adding that if she had heard more about the film from within the Christian community, she would have seen it opening day, Dec. 1. "I wish there had been more awareness. It was lacking that kind of 'Oh my gosh, you have to go see that movie' factor."
In the movie business, the first weekend is a crucial gauge in determining whether a movie lives or dies. The soft $8-million opening for "The Nativity Story" wounded its chances of becoming a big holiday hit and could damp Hollywood's enthusiasm for big-budget faith-based movies.
Competition later in the month forced many exhibitors to push "Nativity" off the marquee to make room for such family films as "Night at the Museum," "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Charlotte's Web."
Even so, "Nativity" held on strong for several weeks, performing particularly well the week before Christmas. Ticket sales for the film, which tells the story of Mary and Joseph on their journey before the birth of Jesus, went up 52% the Wednesday before Christmas and 96% the Thursday before the holiday. The movie has grossed about $37 million through Sunday — a solid showing, considering its weak opening.
"Sampling with this audience takes time," said Russell Schwartz, head of marketing for New Line. "This was never about a huge opening weekend."
"The Nativity Story" comes after the huge success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which opened to $84 million in February 2004 and went on to gross more than $612 million worldwide, with $241 million coming from abroad.
"The Nativity Story" did not perform well in predominately Christian countries such as Italy or Spain or in Latin America. Domestically, however, "Nativity" is now among the top 10 highest-grossing faith-based or religious-themed films in recent times, according to Media by Numbers, a box-office tracking firm.
"It's one of those movies that people put unrealistic expectations on because of 'The Passion of the Christ,' but it's a solid performer," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers.
" 'The Passion' was a cultural phenomenon that went beyond the faith-based audience," he added. "The Christian audience is out there but, like any specifically targeted audience, you can't expect blockbusters to come just from that audience. But if you keep your budgets in line, you can make some solid returns on these movies."
New Line spent about $65 million making and marketing "The Nativity Story" and probably will make its money back on home video.
But Wyck Godfrey, producer of "The Nativity Story," fears that his movie's slow momentum at the box office will discourage others from making large-budget, overtly Christian entertainment.
"We were relieved by how it held up. But it has struck a blow to bigger-budget epic biblical stories," Godfrey said. "I'm not running out to do the [life of the] Apostle Paul, and I was thinking about doing it before."
Other studios, such as 20th Century Fox's FoxFaith division, are distributing low-budget Christian films, but most of them will skip theaters and go directly to video.
Most studios probably will stick to making mainstream fare and reaching out to the Christian audience when marketing movies with family-friendly themes such as "Charlotte's Web" or "The Pursuit of Happyness."
Courting many Christians, especially those who rarely go to the theater, takes time in part because of their distrust of Hollywood entertainment as violent, sex-laden and often disrespectful of their religious values.
"Moviegoing is a habit," Dergarabedian said. "Christian audiences are not in the habit of supporting Hollywood movies, because mainstream Hollywood movies don't reflect their values. To get them out to theaters is a little tougher."
Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission, said grass-roots marketing to build audience awareness needed to reach deep into the community.
"The key to marketing to the church is not as simple as just putting the word out by e-mail lists," Baehr said. "There is a whole nature of understanding the church."
Gibson and his team spent months courting church leaders, holding many screenings of "The Passion" before its release. Because a final print of "The Nativity Story" was not completed in time, the movie had only a few weeks of prescreening.
"If they want to market to the Christian community, they have to understand the value of prescreening to leaders," said Michael Catt, senior pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. "The church leaders control what is promoted from the pulpit."
Catt, who could not find a prescreening of "The Nativity Story" anywhere near his area, is the executive producer of the low-budget inspirational football film "Facing the Giants," which grossed nearly $10 million and was produced using $100,000 in church donations.
Some Christians were disappointed that "Nativity," directed by Catherine Hardwicke, did not push the envelope.
In an essay in the monthly magazine Christianity Today, editor David Neff gave the movie a generally good review but criticized it for shying away from depicting the true hardship of Mary and Joseph's era. He wrote that "Nativity" was done with "Christmas-card sentimentality" and glossed over the violence of the time, such as Herod's slaughter of the innocents.
The movie, Neff wrote, "is not boldly realistic like 'The Passion of the Christ.' "
Godfrey said it was a sign of the times that a film needed controversy or an edge to gain an audience.
"We unfairly get compared to 'The Passion' because it was so shocking," he said. "If I was going for box office, I would have been better off putting something sacrilegious and reinterpretive, like, was Mary really a virgin? But I didn't want to do that."
New Line was hoping to attract African American and Latino moviegoers in addition to white evangelicals. But according to the studio's research, mainly white women showed up that first weekend. By its third week, the movie benefited from large group attendance such as 600 schoolchildren from St. Monica's elementary school in Santa Monica and 1,200 from Dallas Trinity Church.
Foos, the Fuller Theological student, is hopeful that studios will continue to make biblically inspired films.
"They have to win over this audience," she said. "If they look at this as a failure, then that's too bad. This was their initiation and a way to gain credibility. They could put the movie out next Christmas. It comes around every year, you know."