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Hollywood Behind The Scenes: Will 2018’s Crop of Faith-Based films follow strong box office success of ‘I Can Only Imagine’?

Hollywood Behind The Scenes

By Stanley Isaacs

Stanley Isaacs

Something unexpected and, I believe, quite interesting happened this weekend at the nation’s box office: An independent film, made for $7 million, which hardly anyone in town ever heard of, far outperformed predictions in its domestic theatrical debut.

Numerous tracking research data suggested the Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate release would earn between $2 -$4 million.

According to Box Office Mojo, when the final figures were released Monday, the faith-based film, I Can Only Imagine, grossed $17.1 million on only 1,629 screens.

When you consider that the Warner Bros. release, Tomb Raider, made for an estimated $94 million, opened on 3854 screens, and grossed $26.3 million, the performance of I Can Only Imagine can only be called “miraculous.”

The film also had the highest per screen average of any film over the weekend generating a staggering $10,510 per screen.

Additionally, I Can Only Imagine had the fourth-highest domestic opening for a faith-based film, behind Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ ($83.8 million), Son of God ($25.6 million) and Heaven is for Real ($22.5 million).

And the good news kept on coming. On Monday, I Can Only Imagine earned an estimated $1.7 million, almost as much as Tomb Raider’s $1.8 million.

I Can Only Imagine dramatizes the story behind the hit song of the same name and of Bart Millard, the leader of Christian rock group MercyMe.

Millard, a Southern Baptist, helped publicize the film including promoting the title during MercyMe’s latest tour.

Roadside’s marketing campaign also included a major push on Christian radio, while a trailer for the movie played before Lionsgate’s inspirational movie, 2017’s Wonder. The plan paid off. Across America moviegoers on social media reported sell-out crowds in their home towns.

“The power of grassroots marketing, consisting mainly of a strong and enthusiastic endorsement from influencers (clergy, etc.) to their respective congregations in the faith-based community, is not to be underestimated and likely had a huge impact on the performance of the film,  said box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of comScore.  “This has been true of virtually every successful faith-based film in the modern era.”

“It definitely shows that if you build a good movie, this audience will come out,” said Roadside co-president Howard Cohen, noting that I Can Only Imagine is Roadside’s biggest opening in history.

Roadside partnered with Lionsgate in acquiring the U.S. rights to the movie after it was completed.

Faith-based films made headlines at the U.S. box office in 2014 when films like, God’s Not Dead, made on a $2 million budget, earned $61.7 million and Heaven is for Real generated $91.4 million against a $12 million budget, prompting pundits to declare 2014 the “Year of the Bible.”

And so, in typical Hollywood fashion, the studios flooded the market with faith-based titles – but with one noticeable difference: For the longest time these films had been made on microscopic budgets and were unable to draw big-name talent, either in front or behind the camera.

But since Hollywood worships one thing above all: Box Office results… and if a genre shows it consistently makes a profit – the studios are only too happy to start writing bigger checks to compete on the national level with star driven wide releases.

But the results were not quite heavenly. Since 2015, while films like Lionsgate’s The Shack  earned $57.4 million, and Sony/TriStar’s Miracles from Heaven generated  $61.million. God’s Not Dead 2 earned a disappointing $20.8 million domestically in 2016.

The questions now are: Is there a substantial portion of the movie-going public that wants to see stories that uplift and inspire us, especially in troubling times? Will the unexpected success of I Can Only Imagine bring about a second wave of inspirational faith-based films that will be embraced by audiences?

I, for one, am eager to find out. There are at least a dozen faith-based films scheduled for release during the balance of 2018, including God’s Not Dead 3.

Hope to see you at the movies!














About the author

Stanley Isaacs

Stanley Isaacs is an award-winning filmmaker, preservationist and educator. He has written, produced and directed a wide range of film and television projects in a career that spans nearly four decades. He is the founder and CEO of 100% Entertainment, Inc. (, an independent production company and The Film History Preservation Project, (, a multi-award-winning documentary series, whose Mission Statement is to preserve cinema history by enshrining a legacy of priceless stories and insights from legendary producers that can be studied and appreciated for generations, by film buffs, fans, students, preservationists and historians around the world.

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