When the “Son of God” came out the weekend before Lent 2014, Christ Church in Tyler’s staff decided seeing the movie as a church would be a great way to kick off the season.
So, the Episcopal church rented out a theater and encouraged its members to attend and invited family, friends and neighbors. People did not have to pay, but could donate if they wanted to.
Fast forward to this year; the church decided to do the same thing with “Risen,” a Sony Pictures production about the biblical story of Jesus’ resurrection as told through the eyes of a nonbeliever.
“We don’t do it often,” Christ Church children’s ministry director Tina Ridley said. “One, it’s fairly expensive to rent out an entire theater. We really try to choose movies that offer … something authentic, some authentic way that incorporates into the spiritual life of our parishioners. The particular movie, “Risen,” was great because it offered a different viewpoint.”
With faith-based film releases to theaters increasing, some churches have been more intentional about promoting these films for their value not only to the individual believer’s faith, but also to building the church community.
Jeremy Simpson, general manager at the Times Square Cinema, said at least five churches rented out theaters for “Risen,” though he declined to name which ones.
He said that is something churches have done with faith-based films since the theater opened in 2003.
He said when “The Passion of the Christ” came out in 2004, churches were buying out theaters for a month straight.
This support from the community bodes well not only for the film companies and distributors, but also for the individual theaters.
Because Times Square Cinema has performed well on past faith-based films - including being among the highest-grossing theaters for "War Room" in Texas - distributors are more inclined to give the theater a chance on future faith-based films, Simpson said.
A call to a media contact with Regal Entertainment Group and a message left for the general manager at Carmike 14 in Tyler were not returned by deadline.
At Friendly Baptist Church in Tyler, Minister to Students Steve Lyles said about 300 people went to a showing of “Risen” with the church, which had to spread into two theaters.
Lyles said the church also bought out at least one theater with “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004 and “War Room” last year.
He said with “The Passion of the Christ,” the church encouraged people to invite friends and the guests received free tickets.
With the most recent showings, members have paid for their tickets, effectively reimbursing the church.
Lyles said the purpose of these movie outings is two-fold. First, the church desires to reach out to the community. People who might never come to a church service or Bible study might be willing to go see a faith-based movie, he said.
“It’s a way for them to hear the Gospel in a setting they’re probably more comfortable in,” Lyles said.
Second, the church views it as an educational opportunity for people to learn biblical principles.
Lyles said the church leaders are picky about which faith-based films they will promote to the congregation. They want to make sure the films are biblically based.
With “The Passion of the Christ” and “Risen,” Lyles said the theater worked with them to turn the sound down at the beginning and end so a church leader could welcome those in attendance at the beginning and share the Gospel, answer questions and offer an invitation at the end.
A LifeWay Research study released in 2014 found that about half of Americans (56 percent) wanted more movies with Christian values.
The greatest interest in more Christian films came from people who self-identified as evangelicals or who attended church weekly, lived in the Midwest or South, or were older than 45, according to a summary of the report on LifeWay Research’s website.
“Faith-based movies are no longer a niche,” LifeWay Research Director Scott McConnell said, according to the website. “It’s smart economics - if you make a film that appeals to that audience, they will show up.”
Though the earnings for faith-based films pale in comparison to others releases, several of the recent films have turned a large profit.
For example, “God’s Not Dead,” released in 2014, earned almost $61 million with an estimated budget of $2 million, according to a September 2015 article in The Washington Post.
Last year’s “War Room,” which told the story of an African-American couple who through prayer and faith restored their marriage, made $11.4 million on its opening weekend, almost four times the cost of creating the movie, according to The Washington Post. It ended up making more than $65 million in domestic box office sales plus more than $5 million internationally.
At the end of the day though, for churches and individuals the movie going is less about turning a profit for the company and more about building community and faith.
Ms. Ridley at Christ Church said part of the reason the church is putting on these movie-viewing opportunities is because they are “trying to get back to where the church becomes kind of a central activity center for families.”
In addition, she said, they also want to provide people with a time to reflect on their relationship with Jesus and how other people might view the faith.
She said especially with Risen, the movie offered a different point of view, which gave the parishioners the opportunity to experience what the crucifixion must have been like for people who did not follow Jesus.
“We’re very selective about which movies we’re going to do this with,” she said.
She said both movies “Son of God” and “Risen” offered “a powerful experience and gave them something spiritual,” Ms. Ridley said. “It awakened something in them. It spoke to them. It touched them. Everybody that I spoke to had positive very thankful words coming out of both movies.”
If you go
Risen is in theaters now and can be viewed in Tyler at Times Square Cinema, Carmike 14 and Regal Tyler Rose Stadium 14.