The final clause of the headline posted Sunday at Box Office Mojo, a site that tracks movie earnings, read simply, “…‘God’ Lives.” It wasn’t a statement of faith, but rather a comment on the surprisingly high (at least surprising to the entertainment media) ticket sales of the low-budget Christian film God’s Not Dead, which placed fourth overall in box office earnings last weekend.
After noting that the latest dystopian teen thriller, Divergent, took the No. 1 slot and Muppets Most Wanted came in second, the article noted, “At just 780 locations, God’s Not Dead earned an incredible $8.56 million.” The film’s gross actually made it the No. 3 movie of the weekend based on per-theater averages. It now ranks seventh all-time among faith-based movies, and first for those opening in less than 1,000 theaters. That’s slightly below Courageous ($9.1 million), and slightly above Fireproof ($6.8 million), according to Box Office Mojo.
Given the financial performance of Sherwood Pictures’ films and the strong showing of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s Son of God last month (the expanded 2013 miniseries version also marked The History Channel’s highest-rated show ever), what may be most surprising about God’s Not Dead’s success is the media’s astonishment over it. The film, which focuses on a Christian college student (Shane Harper) going up against his atheist professor (Kevin Sorbo), is sparking yet another round of mainstream stories attempting to account for the appeal of small Christian releases.
After calling God’s Not Dead “the biggest surprise of the weekend,” Entertainment Weekly reported that 2014 is “shaping up to be a bellwether for faith-based films.” The Christian Science Monitor pointed out that low-budget evangelical hits like it are “still startling the industry with their robust enthusiasm for faith-filled films targeting the tastes of the faithful.” After noting that these types of small, contemporary movies made by unabashedly outspoken believers offer a very different experience than big-budget studio epics like Noah and Exodus, the article stated, “It has a deep resonance in the Evangelical subculture, which often feels mocked and demeaned by the nation’s media and entertainment elites.”
Finally, Moviefone analyzed the film’s performance by pointing out it was presold to church groups, adding, “It touches a nerve … academia stands in for all those other arenas where Christians are supposedly shouted down and punished for voicing Biblical dogma.” Moviefone suggested that cameos by the media-beleaguered Robertson family of Duck Dynasty fame probably didn’t hurt either.
Mark Borde, the co-president of Freestyle Releasing, the company that released the film on behalf of the producers at Pure Flix Entertainment, is one person who isn’t surprised by God’s Not Dead’s earnings. “While this huge opening may be a surprise to the industry, it is not so much to us,” he told The Wrap. “The in-house tracking, the legitimate one million Facebook fans, the very high trending on Twitter and Fandango among many other platforms, and the huge positive reaction from the hundreds of screenings over the many past months, gave us hope for a significant opening.”
Listen to commentary by Paul Kengor on God’s Not Dead and higher education from The World and Everything in It: