Coming Soon to a Church Near You

Cloud Ten's movie
Cloud Ten's movie "Left Behind: World at War," underwritten by Sony Pictures, will open tonight in churches as part of a new marketing trend. (By Ken Woroner -- Cloud Ten Pictures)
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 21, 2005

"Left Behind: World at War," the third movie based on the Left Behind series of novels about Armageddon and the Second Coming of Jesus, will open tonight on 3,200 screens across the country. But it will not be shown in a single commercial theater.

Although more than 70 million copies of the novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have been sold, the previous two movies flopped at the box office. So, this time, Sony Pictures Entertainment is leaving the multiplexes behind. "World at War" will break out exclusively in churches.

Marketing executives say the decision is part of a major trend. The entertainment industry has discovered there is power, power, product-moving power in selling movies, books and music through churches -- particularly the suburban megachurches that draw thousands of well-heeled worshipers.

Twenty-five years ago, there were fewer than 50 churches in the United States that attracted more than 2,000 people each week. Today, there are more than 1,200. Many boast professional-quality sound systems, large-screen projection systems and comfortable seats that rival those of any commercial theater. Most also have bookstores or gift shops.

"I can't tell you how many times people ask me for my listing of megachurches so that they can try to sell stuff to them," said Scott L. Thumma, a professor at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut who researches megachurches. He does not give out his mailing list.

In addition to about 150 megachurches across the country, hundreds of smaller congregations will show "World at War" this weekend. They include Reality Gospel Church in Alexandria, where the Rev. Richard Edgar expects to draw 300 viewers, twice his regular membership. Like most pastors across the nation, Edgar will not charge admission but will ask for an offering.

"We want to show Hollywood that there are enough people in the churches to support good, wholesome entertainment without all the blood and guts and sex and vile language," he said.

"World at War" will be shown at 115 churches in Virginia, 51 in Maryland and one -- Chevy Chase Baptist Church -- in the District, according to a list on the movie's Web site, .

Last year, Mel Gibson successfully experimented with church-based marketing, selectively previewing "The Passion of the Christ" to religious audiences to build buzz in advance of its opening in commercial theaters. Walt Disney Pictures plans to use the same strategy in December when it releases "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," based on the first book in C.S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia."

The leading apostle of marketing through churches is the Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, a much-emulated megachurch in Lake Forest, Calif. Since January 2003, he has sold 23 million copies of his book "The Purpose Driven Life" without any significant print, radio or television advertising, or even a conventional book tour.

He did it, he said, by creating "a whole new distribution channel," offering the book directly to ministers and congregations in bulk quantities, along with suggested sermons and study guides.

Although Warren calls his network of pastors "a stealth movement," his huge sales have registered on publishers' radar screens. "More than anything else, the success of Rick Warren's book has proved to a lot of marketing folks that tapping into churches is a profitable strategy," Thumma said.

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