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After Mel... how Hollywood gets religion
Savvy film marketers connect mainstream Hollywood to church audiences.
by Christian Zappone, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Combining two of America's greatest passions -- marketing and religion -- niche firms in Hollywood are discovering that selling films to audiences of faith pays.

Even before Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ," companies such as Motive Marketing and Grace Hill Media were helping put studios in touch with audiences seeking a moral message.

Recently, for the Disney-Walden Media co-production of C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," California-based Motive Marketing designed and maintained an extensive "faith and family outreach" marketing effort while Grace Hill Media handled the movie's grassroots publicity.

Walden Media, owned by former Qwest (down $0.23 to $6.86, Research) Chairman Phillip Anschutz, through his Denver-based holding company, is itself in the business of producing child- and family-friendly movies based on classic stories.

The combined effort to market the film -- which earned $269 million in the United States -- included sneak peak events featuring exclusive clips, appearances by religious singer Stephen Curtis Chapman and by the stepson of C.S. Lewis, Mark Gresham, who was also a co-producer of the film.

Paul Lauer, president of Motive Marketing, contends the company's goal isn't about marketing movies as much as providing congregations with tools to further their goals. "Our biggest asset is our relationships," said Lauer. His firm, which also markets to non-religious audiences, developed study and resource guides for "Narnia" that targeted church leaders and school teachers -- just as it had created outreach materials for "Passion."

A different growth curve

Studios, wary of alienating mainstream audiences or church-based ones, have no need to publicize the "faith outreach" marketing to the public at large. Since much of the promotion is done through the relatively closed channels of churches and religious organizations, the risk of alienating the secular audience is further minimized.

Grace Hill lists among its clients Universal, New Line Cinema, Sony Picture Classics, Screen Gems, Paramount, Warner Brothers as well as all the major TV networks (Warner Brothers and New Line, like CNNMoney.com are owned by Time Warner).

The movies Grace Hill takes on usually fall into "three sub categories: inspirational, ones dealing with moral issues, and finally, religious films (which comprises the smallest segment)."

"The first criteria for us to work with a movie is that it's got to be good," said Jonathan Bock, founder and president of privately-owned Grace Hill.

The company's marketing plans vary depending both on the movie and on the intended audience. More conservative congregations and organizations aren't receptive to movies with offensive language or sexuality. More mainstream denominations remain open to a wider array of films. Grace Hill counts among its past projects work it has done work on "Signs," "Lord of the Rings" and more recently "Walk the Line."

Audiences of faith bring a new dynamic to ticket sales. "The movies we work on have a different growth curve than normal blockbusters," Lauer said. "Normal movies shoot up but level off quickly. For the movies we work on, the curve looks like more of a steady rise. It points to strong word-of-mouth selling."

Take Warner Brothers' Polar Express. "We told Warner our campaign's impact wouldn't hit opening weekend," said Lauer. "Polar Express" had a lackluster opening weekend of $23.5 million. "[Then] the film did something irregular. It 'got legs.'"

The movie stayed in the theatres, was re-released as an IMAX picture and eventually grossed $173 million.

A fine line to walk

Setting aside the cultural implications of such a glossy mix of Hollywood and religion, even secular industry watchers see value in these outreach efforts.

Harry Knowles, of Ain't-It-Cool-News, a movie review and industry-watching Web site said, "There's a marketing gap between those that would sell a film like 'V for Vendetta' and a film that is truly 'for all ages.' These marketing specialists are needed now more than ever to repackage and represent films in the 'safe zone' to church groups and family sensitive segments of society."

"Narnia is a great example of a film marketed to secular audiences but also to Christian audiences in an effective way without excluding anyone," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Company, a box office tracking firm. "Any time Hollywood sees there is an audience that can bring extra dollars to box office, they'll try to woo the audience. Now, it won't work with every film, but we'll continue to see it where appropriate."

So there remains a fine line for studios to walk when drawing in both religious and secular audiences. But with the help of niche marketers, it's a line studios are learning to walk -- especially in a market rife with advertising that often confuses as much as informs the public about a film's content and themes.

One effect of the trend is the creation of a more meaningful endorsement. Knowles says religious marketers "provide a very real service that the Motion Picture Association of America has failed to represent - which is the genuine endorsement of films with adult stories that are made for all audiences" without being "dumbed down."

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2006 may be the year when more media firms find religionTop of page

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