Heaven Is for Real, out on April 16, tells the fact-based tale of a cute young boy who returned from near death with visions of the hereafter. Predictably afterlifey, it already has a built-in audience: A book of the same name, written by pastor Todd Burpo (played by Greg Kinnear in the film) and conservative writer Lynn Vincent, spent months on bestseller lists in 2010 and 2011. It’s the top nonfiction paperback right now.
The movie is the latest in this year’s unprecedented lineup of mainstream religious films. The first of these, Son of God, a re-edit of last year’s hit History Channel miniseries The Bible, had a strong opening weekend of $25 million in late February. A reboot of the Left Behind Christian sci-fi novels, starring Nicolas Cage, opens in October. Two more Biblical epics, Ridley Scott’s Exodus, with Christian Bale as Moses, and Mary, Mother of Christ, with Ben Kingsley as King Herod, will come by Christmas.
Currently in theaters is Noah, with Russell Crowe as the title character. He and director Darren Aronofsky traveled to meet with Pope Francis last month, hoping to benefit from the same promotional magic that John Paul II gave to 2004’s The Passion of the Christ. That film grossed more than $370 million domestically. (Without the Vatican’s blessing, Noah has made $72 million since its release on March 28.)
Passion was a unique blockbuster, but it demonstrated the power of faith-based institutions as engines of film promotion. Church leaders encouraged congregants to see the movie, often organizing group trips, giving away tickets, and hosting prayer sessions in theaters. “Hollywood doesn’t ‘get’ faith-based audiences, but they do know there’s a market for these stories,” says David Poland, editor of Movie City News. Only 13 percent of Americans are frequent moviegoers, seeing a film at least once a month, he says. “If you can reach Christians, you’re getting through to an audience beyond the usual people.”
Selling these viewers on Hollywood isn’t so easy. “If there’s a Christian radio show listened to by 3 million people, we can’t just make a phone call and take out an ad,” says Rich Peluso, senior vice president of Affirm Films, a Sony (SNE) division that distributes religious films, including Heaven Is for Real. “A team member flies into their town, meets with the board, shows them the film, and then we spend several weeks building a plan. Now, multiply that by the hundreds of faith-based ministries and organizations in the country.”
It doesn’t always work. “There’s a lot of resistance among the faith-based audience,” says Rebecca Cusey, managing editor of Patheos, a religion website. “People don’t want to be taken advantage of, and they’re not going to run out to see a movie just because it has a character who loves Jesus.” Studios often hire faith-oriented marketing firms to get through to pastors of large churches or prominent radio hosts. To help sell Noah, Paramount (VIA) used Grace Hill Media, which also worked to get congregants interested in the Superman movie Man of Steel.
Because of Heaven Is for Real’s book sales, the movie is more likely to succeed. Plus, it’s tailor-made for Sunday sermons—the movie’s title isn’t Is Heaven for Real? You can guess how the story ends (spoiler alert: not hell), and it gets there with all the emoting and middle-Americana you might expect. Todd is not just a pastor, he’s also a garage-door repairman, a volunteer firefighter, and a high school wrestling coach. (He’s heavily in debt, as well, because: America.) The camera constantly hovers over verdant Nebraska farmland—a stylistic nod, perhaps, to the message that heaven isn’t just for real, it’s also everywhere.
It’s pretty stuff, but the movie works best when sensitively exploring a devout community torn apart by the great unknown. When Todd first starts to talk about his son’s visions, even the church board thinks he’s lost it. Belief, the movie suggests, isn’t easy. Neither, it turns out, are ticket sales.