Preaching to the choir may not impress movie critics, but it seems to work at the box office, if the success of the micro-budget Christian movie "God's Not Dead" is any indication.
The indie film about a college student who debates his atheist professor about the existence of God has grossed about $35 million in ticket sales so far, making it one of the biggest surprises of the year, with little sign of stopping as it enters its fourth weekend in theaters.
In a landscape dominated by dystopian teen sci-fi and Marvel superheroes, that may not seem like a lot of money, but in terms of religious films, it's big -- especially considering "God's Not Dead" cost less than $3 million to make.
It has already grossed more than fellow low-budget religious dramas such as 2008's "Fireproof" and 2011's "Courageous."
According to filmmaker David A.R. White, co-founder of Pure Flix Entertainment, the company behind "God's Not Dead," it could even end up doing better than Mark Burnett's New Testament retelling "Son of God," which has essentially completed its domestic run with about $59 million in domestic ticket sales.
That's if the movie can keep up its momentum.
It will run in 2,100-plus theaters this weekend, up from 1,758 a week ago, when it brought in $7.8 million and landed at No. 4 in the U.S. and Canada. Helped by a boosted screen-count, its weekend take fell a mere 12% week-to-week. It opened last month in just 780 locations, but managed to gross an impressive $9.2 million for a fourth-place finish.
"The question is whether we're going to continue to expand or not," White said. "We're just taking it week by week."
The film's box-office strength comes largely from the support of religious leaders, aggressive social media marketing and word-of-mouth among Christian consumers.
The filmmakers screened the movie for 8,000 pastors in the two months leading up to the theatrical debut. The marketing campaign used social media to target fans of films such as "Fireproof" and "Courageous," and placed ads on the Internet radio service Pandora aimed at people listening to Christian rock artists such as the Newsboys, who also appear in the movie.
The presence of Willie and Korie Robertson of A&E's redneck reality show "Duck Dynasty" didn't hurt either. The Robertsons were brought on late in the filming process, around April last year, White said. That was before family patriarch Phil Robertson made disparaging comments about gays in an interview with GQ magazine and was briefly suspended from the TV show.
That incident greatly elevated the family's profile among Christian conservatives and heightened interest in "God's Not Dead," White said.
"It couldn't have been better for us," he said.
The movie expands to Britain next weekend, and is gearing up for release in Brazil, South Africa, Australia and Germany, but whether it can carry well overseas remains to be seen.
At home, another faith-based movie, TriStar Pictures' "Heaven Is For Real," hits theaters next week.