Hollywood plays to the faithful, finds hits with God

(REUTERS) - Hollywood has embraced God in a big - and lucrative - way.

The movie Heaven Is For Real, which depicts the story of a young boy who claims to have visited heaven during a near death experience, is the fourth faith-based film this year to stir movie-going audiences with impressive box office numbers.

Made for US$12 million (S$15 million), the film, which stars Greg Kinnear, collected US$21.5 million over the Easter weekend in US and Canadian theatres, finishing third at the box office behind bigger budget films Captain America: The Winter Soldier from Walt Disney and Rio 2 from Fox.

Two other Christian-based films also cracked the top 10. Noah, from Viacom's Paramount Pictures, stars Russell Crowe as the biblical figure and was ninth. It has generated more than US$93 million at domestic theatres since opening in March, according to the site Box Office Mojo. God's Not Dead, about a religious freshman college student who debates his professor over the existence of God, was 10th and has totalled US$48 million over five weeks, despite playing in only about half the numbers of theatres of Hollywood's larger films.

Fox's Son Of God, an adaptation of producer Mark Burnett's 10-hour TV mini series The Bible, generated more than US$59 million in domestic ticket sales after opening earlier this year.

"This audience has long felt left out by Hollywood and it certainly looks like this isn't the case anymore," said Mr Paul Dergarabedian, senior market analyst of box office tracking firm Rentrak, in an e-mail. "The numbers will encourage studios to make more of these types of films."

Studios have been searching for more faith-based films since Mel Gibson's 2004 The Passion Of The Christ, which tallied US$611.9 million in worldwide ticket sales and was made on a modest US$30 million budget, according to Box Office Mojo.

In the last five years alone, Hollywood has made 26 movies that the site classifies as Christian films, including three based on The Chronicles Of Narnia fantasy novels by C.S. Lewis that literary academics say adopted several Christian themes.

"There's a core audience and they're very interested in seeing films with a faith-based centre," said Mr Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribute for Sony Pictures Entertainment, whose TriStar Pictures unit distributed Heaven Is For Real.

"The one main ingredient most have is that they are somewhat inspirational in nature," said Mr Bruer. "People feel like they get something out of it."

Not all get great reviews. Heaven Is For Real got a positive "fresh" rating from only 31 of 59 reviewers, according to the site Rotten Tomatoes.

But some of the films can have a built-in marketing vehicle, according to Mr David A.R. White, whose company Pure Flix produced the film God's Not Dead. Mr White told Entertainment Weekly that Pure Flix waged an aggressive grassroots campaign that included screening the film for 8,000 pastors prior to its opening.

"We have a lot of relationships to the gatekeepers who can rally their people to go to the movie theatre," Mr White told the magazine. He added of the American audience: "One hundred and sixty million plus people call themselves Christians. They go to church once a month, at least. That's a lot of people."