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The Christian Brand
is a Marketing Loser

by Scott Nehring

Terry Mattingly of the Scripps Howard News Service published an article on August 22, 2007, titled The Ultimate Movie Stigma. The piece attempts to explain the financial failure, or at least the lackluster showing of The Ultimate Gift at the box office.

The Ultimate Gift was distributed by FoxFaith, the spiritual branch of Fox’s distribution arm.  Mattingly quotes the film’s producer, Rick Eldridge, who was surprised and dismayed to learn his film was being released as a Christian film:

‘I told the Fox people this movie was going to resonate with the Christian audience and that’s fine with me because I am a Christian,’ said Eldridge.  ‘But I was worried that this movie would get tagged as “a little Christian movie,” like that was some kind of Good Housekeeping seal for the Christian marketplace.’ … I think it’s obvious that this is what happened, and that caused some people to distance themselves from this movie.  There was no need for that to happen.

The film does contain both Christian messages and direct references to Christ, Himself, but it does not slather its narrative with the divine. Both Mattingly and Eldridge clearly see this label as a hindrance to public attention (and higher receipts) for an otherwise worthy piece of film.

The Ultimate Gift, which is quite good, did marginally well on DVD after doing almost nothing at the box office—a tad over $3 million domestically.  These returns are probably due to a limited release in theaters after a meek marketing campaign. It is likely that the distribution ran into some roadblocks when the film went down the same FoxFaith marketing stream that flows mostly to churches and other heavenly minded groups. Being a FoxFaith product tends to mark a work as a “Christian” film, and that limits its ability to be distributed to larger audiences. Most people probably never heard of the film, and that’s why they didn’t see it.

In reaction to Mattingly’s article, Dr. Ted Bahr wrote a retort titled Mean-Spirited Attacks on Faith-Filled Movies. In his retort, Dr. Bahr is indignant and refuses the notion that the Christian label is an issue. He further sees the article as an attack on the faith. Bahr argues that faith-based films are solid box office winners and he points to Facing the Giants as an example—the film grossed over $10 million with a budget of only $100,000.  Dr. Bahr also includes the perennial favorites The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia as additional examples.

As much as I respect Dr. Bahr, I believe his response to Mattingly’s article is littered with errors and misstatements. Where I believe Dr. Bahr errs is in his failure to acknowledge the inherent limitations a “Christian” label places upon a product. His argument is solidly one-sided: Christian films should be no-brainers for potential marketers. His view is that the lack of business The Ultimate Gift received was an issue of bad marketing or bad filmmaking, not a damaging label.

In every genre, there are winners and losers. Some children’s films bomb at the box office. Some romances bomb. Many horror movies bomb. Many movies about African-Americans fail. But, they don’t bomb just because of their genre or their faith. They bomb because of their lack of entertainment value and/or their limited marketing. Thus, poor marketing and a lackluster release in a limited number of theaters (which is another skill of the marketing craft) can doom a smaller movie, or even a big one.

The problem I see with Dr. Bahr’s argument is that the marketing and the labeling of the film as “Christian” are inclusive of each other.  A film marked as “Christian” has the inherent issue of appearing to be created with only one audience group in mind.

Horror films don’t purport to speak to any specific group while denying others entry simply by their creation.  African-American films and romance films are meant to be enjoyed by anyone, no matter their ethnicity or marital status. But when a film is labeled “Christian,” it screams that the piece is intended for Christian audiences and contains an overt and probably evangelistic message. The label gives a sense of exclusivity—and for good reason: it essentially wards off atheists, folks of other faiths, even milquetoast Christians for that matter.

The biggest hindrance for a film labeled “Christian” is every other Christian film ever made. We can cherish The Passion of the Christ but we still must contend with The Omega Code, Left Behind, and The Last Sin Eater. “Christian” films stink, and they stink badly.  After years of “Christian” films being low-budget, sanctimonious, and poorly executed, people have become justifiably wary.

Dr. Bahr cites a number of films from 2006 (The Pursuit of Happyness, Superman Returns, Cars) as examples which prove films about faith and values are winners at the box office (we’ll overlook for the moment that Superman Returns promotes the hero siring a bastard child).  Dr. Bahr’s argument is a misdirection. None of those films were released as “Christian” films but, rather, as films that contained moral, even redemptive themes.

If anything, the citing of those films actually works against Dr. Bahr’s concept of offering Christian-labeled films. The named films managed to successfully deliver Biblical themes without the troubling “Christian” label—and that’s the marketing model Christian filmmakers should be following.

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Original published in Movies & Culture Report. Feb. 15, 2011. All rights reserved.