Hmm. So the latest big budget Christian movie, New Line Cinema's The Nativity, has failed to set the box office on fire, grossing less than $8 million on opening weekend and just under $16 million after 10 days. If this were a low budget limited release like Facing the Giants or Omega Code, of course, these numbers would be terrific. But this was a major release from a major studio with a $35 million production budget and probably near that much again for marketing. The Nativity's per theater average was a weak $2,400. For comparison, Jonah – A VeggieTales Movie had an opening weekend per theater average of $6,500. A typical Pixar film will open north of $10,000 per screen.
Initially, New Line execs blamed the disappointing open on the big snow storm that hit "the heartland," their target market for the film. But there wasn't a storm this last weekend, and business for The Nativity dropped by 27% from opening weekend. Normally a 27% drop is pretty healthy, but not when your opening weekend was so weak and when, as a Christmas movie, you only have three more weeks to make money before no one wants to see Christmas movies any more.
So what does it mean for Christian movies? Is the 'gig up'? Why didn't The Nativity perform more like That Passion? I mean, this is the other great "Jesus story," right?
I don't think the performance of The Nativity is necessarily bad news for Christian filmmakers, but I do think there are some lessons to be learned. First, to the average moviegoer, hearing the phrase "Mel Gibson is making a movie about the death of Jesus" is much more intriguing than the phrase "New Line Cinema is making a movie about the birth of Jesus." Why? First of all, because Mel Gibson is an artist that we all really appreciate. (Maybe a little less since his drunken rant, but you get my point.) The year Mel announced The Passion, he had just been voted America's Favorite Movie Actor by the America's Choice Awards. The intrigue of hearing he was making a movie about Jesus was off the charts. New Line Cinema, on the other hand, has never been voted America's Sexiest Man or America's Most Favorite Actor. New Line Cinema isn't an 'artist', so no one was particularly intrigued by the notion of this particular entity creating this particular film. On top of that, the subject of Jesus' birth in the stable has been seen so many times on TV and in front yards across America, and typically in a light that paints it as a smiley and trouble-free affair, that not a whole lot of Americans, in my estimation, would immediately conclude this story would make a fine night out at the movies. "Yeah, yeah – they ride the donkey, the inn is full, they have a baby, everyone glows. End of story."
I would suggest this particular film never had much of a chance due to two factors: First, it had no well-liked artist behind it whose involvement would create high expectations or intrigue, and, second, it told a story that we've seen told a million times in the corniest of animated specials and low-budget Christmas dramas. No intrigue about the artistic vision, combined with no intrigue about the subject matter, leaves a movie with very little to stand on except, "Hey Christians! Please come see our movie about your savior! We made it just for you!" And that pitch, as Hollywood is about to learn, will only get you so far.
Christian filmmakers need to have legitimate artistic visions for their work, and need to choose or create material with inherent intrigue for a sizeable audience. If you have great ideas and great vision for bringing them to life, you will, over time, earn an audience for your work. But the "Hey Christians, we made another movie just for you guys!" pitch isn't going to work. Sure, a few Christians will show up out of a sense of obligation, but the bulk of that now coveted Passion of the Christ audience will be in the next theater over, watching Pirates of the Carribean 2. Why? Because it's fun. And that, at the end of the day, is why America goes to the movies. Even the Christians.