Jan 4, 2013

The economics of Left Behind, the movie, then and now

Left Behind, the movie, was either a commercial success or a commercial failure, depending on how you look at it. Depending on your expectations, and your understanding of the market for explicitly evangelical films.

The new version of the movie -- planned for release at the end of 2013, starring Nicolas Cage -- may or may not succeed in theaters. The way it's being produced, though, demonstrates how significantly the market has changed in in the last 12 years.

The original Left Behind was the most financial successful independent film of 2001, bringing in more than $2 million on its opening weekend in February of that year. It ultimately grossed $4.2 million, domestically.

An opening of $2 million can be horrible. Formula 51, also released in 2001, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Meatloaf (!), took in about $2 million on its opening weekend, and was considered a bomb, though investors made their money back and a bit of a profit on video rentals and foreign sales. Bubble Boy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, took in $2 million on the opening weekend, ultimately grossed more than $5 million, and was also considered a commercial failure.

Nevertheless, Left Behind did a lot better than a lot of other films. Of the 356 films from that year ranked by Box Office Mojo according to commercial success, Left Behind came in at 157.

That isn't bad, but calling it a commercial success certainly evidences a limited vision. It's a success for an alternative movie, available only to a certain sub-market, a film blocked out of the mainstream distribution networks, advertised mainly through Sunday schools and prayer groups.

This is certainly how the production company, Cloud Ten, viewed the film. Their marketing strategy included selling DVDs before the theatrical release, with coupons included inside. They hoped to make money by keeping production costs very low -- scenes set in Israel were shot in Ontario with camels from the local zoo -- and attract an evangelical audience by casting Kirk Cameron and several celebrity ministers and Contemporary Christian Music stars as extras. As the executives of Cloud Ten saw it, there was no way to attract a mainstream audience or compete on the open market, given the hostility of the film industry and film critics towards evangelical Christianity and movies with a message.

One of the top people at Cloud Ten told Christianity Today that the film was guaranteed to be panned by critics, whatever its technical quality, "just because of the message."

The attitude seemed to be, why try?

The authors of the book, by contrast, have consistently sought to escape the limitations of the evangelical market, believing that their story could sell and would sell in the American mainstream, if produced and pushed correctly.

Left Behind, the book, for example, was published by the Christian publishing company Tyndale House, but was not sold only in Christian bookstores, as most Christian fiction had been up to that point, but by major booksellers and at Wal-Mart. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' subsequent series was published with a secular publisher, Penguin, specifically because the company argued it could market the books to evangelicals and non-evangelicals. Those books were advertised on Christian radio, but also in USA Today.

LaHaye and Jenkins believed the 2001 film would be as successful as the Left Behind books, reaching millions, if it was made right and sold right.

That belief caused a pretty severe rift between the authors and the film producers: Jenkins panned the movie as harshly as any of the non-evangelical critics, calling it a poorly produced, glorified "church basement" film. LaHaye went further, actually filing suit against the producers for breach of contract, for making a bad movie, a suit that was settled out of court in 2008.

Cloud Ten defended itself as doing the best it could, given the circumstances. Circumstances have changed, though, and opinions at the studio seem to have shifted, too. Since regaining the rights to the film in 2012, it has put in motion a plan to reboot the series, this time with mainstream actors and a reported budget of $15 million. A distribution deal has been struck with Samuel Goldwyn Films, which isn't the biggest outfit in Hollywood, but has succeeded with other evangelical-friendly films such as Amazing Grace, which grossed $21 million, and Fireproof, which grossed  $33 million.

There are also now mainstream (if not solidly bankable) actors attached to this project, including Nicolas Cage, One Tree Hill's Chad Michael Murray, and High School Musical's Ashley Tinsdale.

That news has been met by some of the snark that Could Ten execs predicted back in 2005, when Peter Lalonde, who has written the new Left Behind scripted, bashed Hollywood for being anti-Christian, saying, "Of course Hollywood sends messages every day, but they have always had this mindset towards Christian films, and frankly I think they still do."

Whether or not that's true today, and whether or not Lalonde still thinks that's true, the market has changed, and the strategy for making and marketing an evangelical film has changed too. Now everyone, it seems, agrees with LaHaye and Jenkins.

The new Left Behind is attempting to recreate the success of other explicitly evangelical films, following a version of the model developed by Sony, which brought in $34 million domestically with Courageous and $43 million with Soul Surfer, a film made for $18 million, given serious publicity, and released in more than 2,000 theaters in 2010.

Part of that change can be attributed directly to the Left Behind books, which demonstrated a mainstream market for evangelical stories. The authors really envisioned a change in the market for novels and for films, where religious works wouldn't be segregated off into a sub-market but would be widely available, go mainstream and succeed.

Whether or not the new Left Behind movie attracts an audience is an open question. The brand isn't what it was at the beginning of the century. The controversies that might have sold tickets have long since gone away. The fact that investors are putting more up more than three times the amount the original movie brought in, though, goes to show how the market for Christian fiction has dramatically different than it was.