Box office brief: Will Christian audiences turn out for 'Heaven Is for Real'?

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Image Credit: Allen Fraser

It’s no secret that Christian-themed films have the potential to be box office gold, but even though faith-based audiences are starved for more material, it doesn’t always pan out the way studios might hope.

While Paramount’s expensive and provocative Darren Aronofsky-directed Noah continues to climb the steep slope toward domestic profitability and Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s Son of God failed to reach Passion of the Christ heights (after seven weeks in theaters it still hasn’t even made Passion‘s opening weekend numbers), the independently released God’s Not Dead came out of nowhere and stunned the major studios with its mighty box office ascent. The $2 million film, now playing in 1,860 locations, has made nearly $41.5 million in just four weekends in theaters.

Now, TriStar Pictures is rolling out its drama Heaven Is for Real on Wednesday in 2,400 locations. Based on the best-selling book by Pastor Todd Burpo about his real-life encounter with the divine, Heaven Is for Real tells the story of his young son, who claims to have visited Heaven during a near-death experience. Greg Kinnear portrays the pastor in the adaptation, and newcomer Connor Corum plays his son Colton. Despite the heavy religious bent, analysts believe that the film will play to both faith-based and mainstream audiences and predict a $20 million five-day opening for the $12 million film.

A $20 million, five-day forecast is not terrible by any means, especially considering Heaven Is for Real‘s modest budget, but it is worth noting that God’s Not Dead opened in 780 locations to $9.2 million. Considering that both deal with modern-day issues of faith, it would seem that there’s a fairly significant disconnect — or that Heaven Is for Real may actually debut significantly higher over the Easter holiday weekend.

“160 million plus people call themselves Christians. They go to church once a month at least. That’s a lot of people,” said God’s Not Dead star and producer David A.R. White after the film’s strong opening. His company, Pure Flix, waged an aggressive grassroots campaign, screening God’s Not Dead for 8,000 pastors prior to its opening and partnering with Newsboys, a popular Christian band, to do the soundtrack and special concerts leading up to the film’s release.

“We have a lot of relationships to the gatekeepers who can rally their people to go to the movie theater. It’s a trusting relationship. They’ve seen our art — Pure Flix has a library of close to 100 films that we’ve made and distributed over the last eight years. They trust us. We share the same goal and the same bond,” said White. “As for whether or not Hollywood is getting it right or wrong, I don’t know that they have the same bond with church leaders. Probably not.”

Whether TriStar is able to pull off the same feat remains to be seen. It’s already faring better among critics than God’s Not Dead (50 percent versus 17 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), but critical reception doesn’t impact faith-based films as harshly as a standard release. Heaven Is for Real also has over 50 percent fewer Facebook likes.

Still, Heaven Is for Real may surprise this weekend. Director Randall Wallace was adamant that the film was not just for the devout. “I’m amazed it got to me,” Wallace admitted to EW when we spoke to him in November. “I’ve been around churches all my life and I’ve been exposed to a lot of material that would be categorized as inspirational. Most of the stuff is anything but inspirational for me. But I found this story to have an incredible intrigue and emotional power,” he said. “It speaks to the cynic in most of us.”

Check back in on Thursday for our full box office preview.


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