Feb 20, 2014

Marketing the 'Son of God'

The forthcoming film about the life of Christ, Son of God, is closely following the business script written by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ a decade ago.

20th Century Films passed on the option to distribute Gibson's movie. Now, releasing Son of God, the companying is copying the commercial strategy that made Gibson's film a financial success.

Son is opening the week before Lent. The Passion opened on Ash Wednesday, 2004.

Son will be released on 3,000 screens. The Passion was shown on 3,043 screens its opening weekend.

The Passion had an advertising budget estimated at only $10 million, and depended on formal and informal networks of Christians for promotion. Son also has an advertising budget of only about $10 million. And according to Mark Burnett, who co-produced the movie with his wife, Roma Downey, Son's commercial success will largely depend on religious groups' promotional efforts.

"The only chance we've got is the church community spreading the word," Burnett said. "It's now a great time for people to bring groups and bring people with them who need this message."

A number of megachurches, including Rick Warren's Sattleback, are renting out whole theaters for premiere showings of Son. A number of churches, including Warren's, did the same thing for Mel Gibson's movie in 2004. Warren, further, developed and marketed Christian small-group curricula to tie in to The Passion, and has now developed and marketed Christian small-group curricula to tie in to Son.

The question, now, is whether this cinematic depiction of Christ will produce the same results as that one.

There's another question, too, though. If you're an American evangelical being told you need to support this film and promote this film, that to promote this film is to promote Jesus, there's also a question about what that result was or is supposed to be.

Tim Challies, who pastors an evangelical church in Toronto and reviews books for the conservative evangelical magazine World, points out that, spiritually speaking, The Passion had all the impact of a squib.

Recalling the promotional push in his church ten years ago, Challies writes:
The pastors raised tens of thousands of dollars from the congregation, then bought movie passes, booked theaters, distributed tickets, formed small groups, bought Warren’s follow-up curriculum, and waited to transform the city. Giving away the tickets was the easy part -- people gladly accepted free movie passes to the film everyone was talking about. All the tickets went, but as far as I know, not a single person -- not even one -- came to any of the follow-up studies. No one was saved. Nothing happened . . .

For all the good the movie did, we may as well have just written checks to Mel Gibson and skipped the movie.
There are some statistics on the spiritual impact of the film from the Barna Group, a polling company that specializes in studies of evangelicals. In May 2004, several months after The Passion left the theaters, Barna did a national survey of more than 1,600 adults, asking them if they saw the film and, if so, what impact it had. The survey results back up Challies' anecdotal evidence.

The survey found that 31 percent of American adults said they'd seen the film. Of those who had seen it, however, only a few reported that The Passion had an impact of their spiritual lives:

  • 9 percent said they were praying more because of the film
  • 8 percent said they went to church more after watching the film
  • 3 percent said they were more concerned about their life choices
  • 3 percent said they had a deeper appreciation for Christ's death
  • .005 percent said they were inspired to share their faith more
  • .001 percent said they made a profession of faith in response to the film

Commercially, on the other hand, The Passion of the Christ did really well:
That model, set out by The Passion, makes sense financially. Fox, as the corporation backing Son, is clearly closely following the promotional script of that movie, hoping for those results. The 2014 marketing plan is nearly identical to the marketing seen in 2004, with the exception of the Gibson-related controversies. As the L.A. Times reported last year, "industry watchers say Hollywood is trying to tap into an underserved audience in the U.S." It's a sentiment Burnett has echoed, saying that he, as a Christian producing commercially viable projects like the miniseries, The Bible, has helped show industry executives that "there is a huge audience for these kinds of projects, an audience that I think has often been underserved."

For some evangelicals, such as Challies but also Warren and also Burnett and Downey, the hope is the film would do more than serve evangelicals as an audience, a bloc of consumers who could consumer more. The hope is the film serves the gospel. 

And perhaps it will. 

But the bottom line with the marketing of Son of God is that it could match the commercial success of The Passion of the Christ. Whether or not it moves souls, it could bring in $300, $400, or $600 million.