I Can Only Imagine trailer

But with the rise of Christian films also comes the flood. The LA Times’ Ryan Faughnder reported that the industry has actually hit a snag: “Studios now have to go to greater lengths to attract devout audiences in an increasingly challenged faith-based film business, as the market for Christian movies becomes more crowded,” he wrote.

This is a tricky balance, as many of the critics, publicists, and filmmakers I spoke to concurred, because some Christian audiences aren’t willing to step outside their comfort zone. “Because there have been so many movies made for this audience, they have become much more discerning,” Howard Cohen, the co-founder of I Can Only Imagine’s distributor Roadside Attractions told the LA Times. “They will choose the ones that not only have a strong, Christian message, but are bigger-feeling, more studio-type films.”

Historically, to make a faith-based—more specifically, a Christian—movie that will sell, you first need the right kind of story, one that’s probably true but not too bleak. It can’t feature characters who do drugs or participate in illegal activity, or who curse too much; otherwise it’ll push your rating above PG. The story should be dramatic, but not too dramatic, and, above all, inspiring. Your audience doesn’t want to go to the movies to feel crappy—the world is crappy enough! Instead, your main character should face some sort of obstacle, maybe an abusive father, or an addiction to pornography, or have their arm bitten off by a shark.

In 90 minutes, they’ll have learned a lesson from the Gospel, and also probably found God. In Miracles From Heaven, Garner’s character’s sick daughter is cured by God’s love; in Fireproof (2008), Kirk Cameron’s character Caleb overcomes his pornography addiction and saves his marriage; in Heaven Is for Real (2014), Greg Kinnear’s character Todd Burpo comes to terms with the idea that his 4-year-old son may have actually gone to heaven.

I Can Only Imagine, released two weeks before Easter, tells the story behind the bestselling Christian pop song of all time. Directed by brothers Jon and Andy Erwin, the movie follows the song’s writer and eventual MercyMe frontman Bart Millard (played by the charming J. Michael Finley) from childhood, negotiating life with an abusive, alcoholic father portrayed by Quaid (hair styled with an emotionally accessible center part), to high school, where he discovers his talent for singing through glee club. Ultimately (spoiler), Quaid’s character is diagnosed with cancer, finds Jesus, and works to mend his relationship with his son. Millard finds it in himself to forgive his father and, after his death, writes the song for him, coincidentally launching Millard and his band to mega-stardom.

It’s a tidy, often moving story of forgiveness and success, with the added benefit of the pre-existing massive appeal of the single. Regardless, the Erwin brothers had a hard time finding anyone to make it. “This was kind of a music biopic take on faith-based film, and that was kind of new territory,” co-director Jon Erwin told Jezebel on a phone call. “I think people were afraid of it; nobody knew if there was a wide audience for a film that centered around Christian music. We believed there was.”

There was. The Erwins raised the money to produce and release the film on their own before Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions signed on as distributors. The film is now an undisputed hit, made for $7 million and having grossed 10 times that since its release. While a music biopic wouldn’t necessarily seem like much of a stretch, the Christian film world has had a hard time stretching the boundaries of what is considered sellable.

The Passion “cracked open the modern era of faith-based films,” according to Rich Peluso, senior vice president of Affirm Films, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s faith-based subsidiary. Just two years after The Passion, Sony came out with Facing the Giants, a Christian sports drama, with a cast and crew comprised largely of volunteers from Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia. The film, directed by soon-to-be prolific Christian film duo the Kendrick Brothers, grossed $10 million at the domestic box office and did well enough overall that Sony decided to devote more resources to what they viewed as an “underserved” audience. That’s when Peluso, who had worked in Christian music, but never in film, was brought on to help launch Affirm.

Since then, Affirm, along with Pure Flix Entertainment, the production company behind the God’s Not Dead series—as well as directing duos the Kendrick Brothers and the Erwin Brothers—have largely been shaping what we think of when we think of faith-based films. Affirm alone has produced over 60 films, a handful of which might be considered modern classics of the genre, including Heaven Is for Real and Fireproof, plus Courageous, the 2011 Alex Kendrick-directed and Kendrick Brothers-written film about four police officers grappling with their families and their faith. Their most recent film, Paul, Apostle of Christ, stars Caviezel (known unshakably as Jesus in The Passion) and was released in March to fairly positive reviews.

Paul, Apostle of Christ trailer

While filmmakers in all genres attempt to please or serve their audience to an extent (except for, perhaps, your Aronofskys and Von Triers), in Christian filmmaking, God is king, but the audience is, too.

“Anyone who says they know what people want is either an idiot or a liar, and while I won’t say I know what people want, I spend a lot of time trying to figure it out,” Peluso told Jezebel over the phone. “We kind of backwards engineer or reverse engineer. We see a story and we start to first think about a couple things: What are the overarching themes or messages in this story, and how might it affect a particular audience?”

If, as Peluso says, the films are being made with the input of the target audience, then the content, too, is shaped by their desires and thus made in their image. Alissa Wilkinson, film critic at Vox.com, former critic at Christianity Today, and associate professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York, agreed that what distinguishes a “Christian film” from a movie with Christianity in it is largely about who it gets marketed to. Evangelicals and conservative Catholics, she said, are mostly looking for entertainment that is “squeaky clean—no sexual content, no profanity, no drugs or nudity or alcohol or anything like that.”

Some elements have become fairly standardized within the genre, in addition to that squeaky cleanliness, ostensibly because that’s what Christian audiences and leaders have expressed that they want to see. “The second piece is usually that it has to be inspirational or uplifting in some way,” Peluso continued. “You wouldn’t see a satirical film or a drama that ends on a sad note or anything like that. They tend to be either movies that are based on Bible stories, sometimes historic stories, but usually Bible stories, or movies that tell stories of somebody having an everyday struggle which is usually set in America among relatively affluent people.”

Because of this, there’s only a narrow range of topics that a faith-based film can tackle—and from very few angles. You’re only going to get protagonists who are literal Biblical figures, clergymen, or who have jobs and life situations that feel familiar to this specific demographic—hence, a lot of stories about emergency responders, soldiers, and athletes. Women are mostly mothers and girlfriends, and, most of the time, everyone is white. (The distinction gets slightly murkier when considering, for example, Tyler Perry’s films, which often have Christian themes but are explicitly made for audiences that don’t necessarily identify with religion.)

Adam Holz, a reviewer at Plugged In, agreed that Christian movies contain a “clear and explicit discussion of the Gospel, of who Jesus is, of Scripture, of what it means to have a relationship with him.” And, they’re typically very “talk-y.” “We get long conversations about salvation, about coming to faith. Sometimes Bible verses are quoted,” he said. “If you’re coming from an evangelical perspective, that’s going to feel like very familiar language. It’s going to feel like church-y language.”

Much like how romantic comedy arcs reliably end in weddings, Christian films reliably end as all good Christian stories do: with salvation. “There is a kind of formula, and if you understand the formula and are sympathetic to it, as many evangelical Christians are, it’s a very satisfying story. Just like there are people who don’t like rom-coms, there are probably people out there that a Christian growth arc is not their idea of the kind of movie they wanna see,” Holz said. “I Can Only Imagine, in some ways, is a very typical Christian movie,” he continued, noting that some of the abusive behavior and alcoholism is on the grittier end of what he’s seen in the genre.

Erwin agreed that I Can Only Imagine, while not particularly groundbreaking outside the genre, forced Christian investors to take leaps that they weren’t necessarily ready to take. But if the Erwins, who had previously directed three major Christian films—October Baby (a 2011 film about a college student who learns she is the result of a “failed abortion”), Moms’ Night Out (a 2014 film about moms who take a night out while their doofy husbands watch the kids), and Woodlawn (a 2015 film about a high school football player struggling with his faith)—know anything, it’s their audience.

“We serve [the audience] exclusively,” Jon Erwin told me. “I think there’s an enormous audience in the flyover between New York and LA, and I think that they’re underserved. They want content that they can bring their family to, which is why we made this movie PG. They want content that represents their values. I think the greater and larger Christian audience is tired of this divisiveness, and this us versus them stuff. I think they want content that actually unifies and inspires.”

Since so much of selling a Christian movie relies upon establishing trust that, among other things, the filmmaker won’t blaspheme your core beliefs, marketing campaigns can feel a lot like politics. “The strategy was definitely to engage—much like a political campaign, to engage the people who were the most passionate about, let’s say, the cause or the issue,” said Paul Lauer, founder and CEO of Motive Entertainment, who managed the grassroots marketing campaign for The Passion, as well as Chronicles of Narnia and Son of God, and largely invented the way Christian films are marketed today, according to several people I spoke to. “The strategy was to work through trusted leaders, basically the people in the pulpit, in order to reach the people in the pew.”

Jon Erwin echoed Lauer’s politics comparison, stressing that the most vital element of selling a film like I Can Only Imagine was going out and meeting the audience. “I had 800,000 frequent flyer miles,” he said, after flying to places like Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Sioux Falls, South Dakota—places, he told me, that “many people in LA don’t know exist.”

Lauer’s overall strategy for Passion was to “narrowcast,” targeting individual pastors and Christian leaders and repeatedly screening the film for evangelical audiences, as opposed to standard mass marketing campaigns which are broadcast. Also central to the strategy was the idea of trust—the film (and Christian films in general), according to Lauer, could be used as a religious teaching tool. In order to get buy-in, the religious leaders had to trust that the film and the team behind the film shared their values. This approach, which remains standard practice among faith-based films, may smell slightly like propaganda, but Lauer argued that it’s something Jesus would cosign.

“If Jesus were alive today, he would definitely be using entertainment and various forms of media. The most effective teachers and evangelists and leaders today use various forms of media and entertainment to convey their message. Jesus used parables...It’s the same model.” Lauer said. “A good friend of mine who is a faith leader once said it’s exactly what Jesus did. Jesus didn’t sit in a temple somewhere and say, ‘OK, everybody, this is what you’re supposed to believe. Go tell everybody.’ He went out, person by person, town by town, during that short period of his public ministry. God himself sent his son personally. That personal touch is critical.”

Once Christian audiences trust the film, the question becomes how to get people in the seats. “[The Passion] was the place that marketers discovered that by pitching pastors your movies, you could sell out blocks of theaters,” said Alissa Wilkinson. “I think until The Passion came out, people didn’t realize that there was this entire untapped market sitting out there, willing and happy to spend money on a movie that they wanted to support as not just entertainment, but as an act of making themselves known.” In other words, if you build it and promote it through a religious leader or institution, they will come.

Lauer’s strategy also relied heavily on the theater takeover, in which a sponsor or a donor buys out every screen at a multiplex, and shows the same movie on every one. That’s not only a fun experience, he told me, but also a way of showing media makers that this film community matters. “The theater itself and the studios and everybody perk up and take notice,” he said. “When you’re part of something like that, you feel like you’re not only doing something personally, but you’re affecting the culture. It’s a statement.” He believes that statement is all the more important given what he sees as an uncomfortable marginalization of Christians in popular culture today, whereas at one point American audiences were happy to watch 7th Heaven or Touched By an Angel, or even Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments without having to explain themselves. 

“There was a time when movies that included faith and TV shows that included faith were just an organic, natural part of the movie-going experience,” said Lauer, who considers the “faith-based” label to be limiting. “When Cecil B. DeMille made The Ten Commandments, he didn’t call it a faith-based movie. When Bing Crosby played a priest in The Bells of St. Mary’s, they didn’t call it a faith-based movie. These were normal movies in the culture. Jesus Christ Superstar is a Broadway sensation—it wasn’t like everybody was like, oh, here comes the faith-based play,” he said. “Somewhere along the line, all of that stuff got pushed out to the point where, when it was reintroduced, everyone decided, oh, now we’re going to call it something. It’s a label now. OK, call it whatever you want, but this is America. There are tens of millions of people in America who go to church and this is a part of their life. It’s not like one little side order over here—it’s the main course in many people’s lives.”

This feeling of marginalization exists outside the film world, as efforts at more active inclusion of other religions and traditions leave Christians, once the unchallenged majority, being forced to acknowledge different experiences. Think of alleged Christian Donald Trump’s crusade to allow Americans to wish each other a “Merry Christmas” once again. Or when, on May 12, Mike Pence tweeted, “We live in a time when traditional values, even religious conviction, are increasingly marginalized by a secular popular culture—a time when it’s become acceptable, even fashionable, to malign religious belief. I still believe with all my heart that FAITH in America is rising.” Or as the nation awaited the results of a Supreme Court case that places directly at odds a business owner’s “religious freedom” and protection from discrimination. Can we really have sympathy for a suppressive majority angry at the prospect of having to share?

And in the film industry, niche genres exist for a reason, for better or for worse—horror films work to please horror-loving audiences, as do films that are YA, sci-fi, or The Fast and the Furious (a genre unto itself).

Kris Fuhr, a West Point graduate and longtime Army officer-turned-film marketer, headed up grassroots faith marketing for I Can Only Imagine after working on many of the major Christian films of the past decade (including Courageous, Heaven Is for Real, and Miracles From Heaven). Her explanation of the campaign echoed Lauer and Peluso’s models—get to the influencers and embed yourself in their communities. “We joke that the church is the original social network, but it takes time to activate that network,” she told me. “What we do is we start generally nine months to a year out, and we start engaging the audience around the film.”

She continued: “I think there’s a lot of movies that come out where people are like oh, that’s interesting, but, man, if you don’t make that emotional connection with people, the world’s a crazy hard place right now and people are so hungry for hope and something that they feel is gonna give them the strength to get up and face another day. I think Imagine was the perfect movie at the perfect time.”

Critics I spoke to mentioned that the Christian film industry has been maturing—“or, perhaps, evolving,” said Holz, “even though that’s a word evangelicals might not always use,” from the same cookie-cutter story we’ve grown to expect, made for an audience that doesn’t want to be challenged. “This, I think, is what’s fundamentally wrong with most faith-based entertainment,” Christian critic Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com, wrote to Jezebel in an email. “By and large, it’s made by people who for the most part are only interested in saying things they already know, for people who basically want to hear what they already believe.”

“They’re basically telling the same story over and over again,” said Sister Rose Pacatte, founding Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles and film journalist for the National Catholic Reporter, over the phone. “These are films that are aimed at people who are already comfortably religious, that’s what I think. I don’t think they challenge people necessarily to do more for their neighbor. I wanna see people changing things and guiding me in my living room, and with the comfort of my bag of popcorn, and telling me that I need to be involved in the world around me, to change it. Otherwise, what kind of Christian am I? I’m a comfortable Christian. I don’t like films that just make me feel more comfortable.”

So what if Christian films got a little freaky? Could audiences handle, for instance, a tragedy? Or one in which Jesus is portrayed as, like, a man who owns a lot of birds? Alissa Wilkinson said she’s observed a shift in how evangelical Christians talk about art, and that she’s seen more of a willingness to stretch the boundaries of what might be considered acceptable. “I have seen, especially among aspiring filmmakers, more willingness and openness to think about [if] it would be OK to include some content we might’ve considered offensive, or to tell this story in a more honest way,” she said. “Or even the idea that you can make a Christian film that doesn’t try to give answers to the questions it raises and still have it be appropriate for your mom to see.”

“At the end of the day, Hollywood is a business,” said Sister Pacatte. “So they’ve developed all these Christian categories and affiliated companies because they see a target market and if they can make money off of it, they’ll do it. When they stop making money, they’ll stop doing it. That’s incumbent then, if you’re a Christian filmmaker making Christian films, you darn well better make good ones, or you’re just gonna peter out because they’re bored.”

Going forward, Erwin wants to work on making the genre better (or the category, or the marketing niche, rather), to show Hollywood that the middle-American faith audience can support a major franchise, and start to chip away at some of the negative associations attached to Christian films. “There’s somewhat of a stigma on Christian film that they’re subpar and cheesy, or not accessible, or dogmatic or whatever,” said Erwin. “I would like to see all of those things over the course of time removed.”

Despite Erwin’s admirable ambition, it’s hard to tell if Christian film will be able to break out of its neatly hemmed box. Is now the time for Christian moviegoers to step out of their comfort zones, when it apparently feels like your value system is being attacked from all sides, even when vocal proponents of it remain agitatedly in power? On the flip side, hasn’t Trumpism empowered audiences to even more shamelessly enjoy nonthreatening, belief-affirming media?

Sr. Pacatte, at least, doesn’t want cinema to comfort her. “When you can show me films that challenge me from my comfortable seat and that don’t use fear to motivate me, that don’t just copy the general culture of our country and bring it into my faith life, or try to impose it on my faith life, then maybe you’re telling me a movie that’s worth watching,” she said. “But don’t politicize it. I just can’t handle that.”