It had all the trappings of a made-for-TV movie: a former sitcom star in the leading role, a Hallmarkian sentimentality, and a direct-to-DVD budget. It's the kind of project studio execs pass on. They did, yet Fireproof raked in the money.
Fireproof is the third, and most profitable, film produced by the Sherwood Baptist Church ministry in Albany, Georgia. Its $7 million opening weekend launched the Christian movie into the box office Top 10 with Shia LeBouf's techno blockbuster and Spike Lee's newest joint.
Those are big-budget movies with Hollywood support. They come tagged with superstar names and $100 million price tags. The studios funnel even more resources into TV spots, billboards, and other PR stunts. Those films are supposed to make millions of dollars atop the box-office charts.
Fireproof, by contrast, was made for half a million dollars by volunteers of the Sherwood congregation. Its headliner, 1980s teen star Kirk Cameron, only received a donation to his charity. And yet, its per screen average was a slim $200 lower than the chart-topping Eagle Eye.
The movie industry has fallen on relatively tough times. Ticket sales fell over four percent from this time last year and prices are up nearly 30 cents to compensate. But Hollywood hasn't tried to tap into the underserved Christian market. Bill Maher's Religulous rounded up kooky, bizarre, extreme believers for an evangelical, three-ring circus. Maher and Larry Charles, whose directorial portfolio includes the cynical satire Borat, took a big-top approach to a topic mainstream America holds dear.
Maher eviscerates truck-stop-chapel assembly, a Christian theme park's version of Mickey Mouse, and a Puerto Rican man claiming to be the living embodiment of Jesus Christ. In other words, the standard Hollywood stereotype of the religious right.
Religulous opened to moderate success. It brought in $3.3 million over the weekend, enough to cover expenses and squeak in at the bottom of the top 10. But Fireproof's second week beat out the establishment insurgent on its way to a 23 million dollar run. It's just another in a long line of independent, traditionally-themed flicks trampling their liberal counterparts.
Similarly, 2007's Golden Compass was supposed to be the cornerstone of New Line Cinema's trilogy of children's fantasy epics. Instead the film, criticized for being anti-Catholic, bombed. It barely crossed the $70 million mark at the domestic box office, froze production on any sequels, and ended with the dissolution of New Line into the Warner Brothers troupe.
Conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz succeeded where Golden Compass stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig failed. Anchutz's Walden Media backed C.S. Lewis' Christian allegory, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, to a $300 million blockbuster, a successful sequel, and a library of follow-up material.
Traditional values sell at the theaters. The quirky pro-life flick Juno drew $143 million on its way to critical acclaim and an Oscar for best original screenplay. The anti-Christian thrillers The Reaping and The Mist only pulled together a combined $50 million. Add in the anti-American flops Lions for Lambs, Sicko, Stop-Loss, and Letters from Iwo Jima and you still don't approach the financial success of a movie that values family and life.
Hollywood executives can't seem to wrap their heads around these figure. Their biggest stars keep signing on for projects insulting soccer moms and suburban teenagers who frequent the movies. While mid-market and independent production companies keep putting out successful films about faith and family, the major studios pass on those projects and the millions of dollars accompanying them.
THE STUDIOS PASSED on Tyler Perry too. In 2002 Perry, who made a name for himself through stage shows about faith and family with appeal to the black community, tried shopping one of his projects around Hollywood. None of the major studios bit. One Paramount Studios executive told him, "Black people who go to church don't go to movies."
Somebody has to be watching Perry's work. Both Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea's Family Reunion made over $50 million. His most recent film, The Family That Preys, cracked the $35 million mark. The movies are only part of Perry's family-friendly communications empire including a TBS sitcom, stage shows, DVD libraries and a New York Times best seller. Earlier this month, Perry made history by becoming the African-American to run his own major TV and film studio.
It's the first step in a larger plan. In 2007 Perry told Entertainment Weekly he dreams of owning a television network, "where you can turn it on with your family all day long and get positive reinforcement."
Since Hollywood wouldn't let him millions inside their system, Perry did it on his own. They wouldn't let him mention Jesus they first time he was asked to do a TV series. Perry walked away. He did it again when the studio executives offered to produce his film, but only after their writers could come in and "clean it up." Perry stuck to his guns and made a fortune while Hollywood's polished, godless pieces sank.
By most critical accounts, Perry's films aren't any good. They're melodramatic fluff with characters and situations yanked directly from afternoon soap operas. Limited budgets mean poor talent and low production values.
But movies like Fireproof have proved critic-proof. Luckily for the nascent faith-and-family film industry at the box office it's the receipts, not the critics, that decide success.