In a year of great box office triumphs, a low-budget movie with an African American cast and overt Christian teachings has emerged as a breakout surprise. “War Room,” a movie beckoning audiences to prayer, nearly topped ticket sales last weekend even though its release was limited to a relatively small number of theaters.
Behind the film’s popularity was a deepening partnership between the filmmakers and a network of influential pastors, which delivered millions of viewers without the need for Hollywood’s typical promotion vehicles of expensive TV ads and global media tours.
Those religious leaders were given rough cuts — overall, about five drafts of the movie — and each time offered feedback and edits to the film’s writing duo, brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick. In turn, the ministers — from tiny churches in rural North Carolina as well as large faith organizations such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Family Life and the Southern Baptist Convention — began pushing the film on social media and in their Sunday sermons, many of which are broadcast widely on the radio and in podcasts.
The independent Christian film’s mostly black cast — a choice that one of the writers said came to them during a prayer session — was echoed in the demographics of last weekend’s audience. African Americans made up 38 percent, according to Rentrak.
Major studios have long known that religious movies and television shows can be a rich business and have put out faith-based spectacles, including “Ben-Hur” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” as well as recent special-effects-laden films about Noah and Moses. But in the past few years, a slew of independent, celebrity-less movies — made by evangelicals for evangelicals — have been turning heads by earning unusually large profits while operating outside the Hollywood establishment.
“War Room,” which tells the tale of an affluent African American couple turning to prayer and faith in Jesus to save their marriage, hardly earned blockbuster dollars. But it made $11.4 million in its opening weekend, nearly four times the cost of creating the movie and well beyond the expectations of most movie analysts.
That phenomenon is similar to what other independent Christian films have experienced. Last year’s “God’s Not Dead” had an estimated budget of $2 million and earned almost $61 million. Alex Kendrick’s third feature, “Fireproof,” brought in almost $33.5 million, making it one of the highest-grossing independent films of 2008.
That success is a sign, some analysts say, of the increasingly tight relationship between popular church pastors and Christian film producers. Indeed, “War Room” gained a powerful ally after the Kendrick brothers decided to cast Priscilla Shirer — a daughter of the Rev. Tony Evans, one of the most prominent black pastors in the country.
“Pastors, I want to encourage you to do everything in your power to encourage the people that you’re leading and the people you are influencing to the theaters to see ‘War Room,’ ” the Rev. Jay Stewart of the Refuge, a church in Kannapolis, N.C., said in a YouTube video.
The Kendrick brothers also wrote a “War Room” Bible-study guide that can be downloaded or purchased. The materials were promoted by LifeWay, a major Christian bookstore chain, whose staff members were also invited to preview screenings.
“We intentionally showed the film to pastors and community leaders to get their support,” said Alex Kendrick, the movie’s director, who was once an associate pastor of a Baptist church in Georgia. That the movie received negative reviews from critics in New York and Los Angeles — or was ignored altogether — hardly bothered him. “Our bull’s-eye audience are people of faith and the church, and we are trying to call them to a more devoted and sincere walk and that they express faith with conviction and sincerity.”
The months-long effort culminated in millions of churchgoers attending the film on opening weekend, with women’s and men’s Bible-study groups and youth groups around the nation organizing movie nights.
The weekend’s earnings were small, compared with those of other summer blockbusters. The film ranked second after the hip-hop biopic “Straight Outta Compton” and, in the slow month of August, faced little competition from major new releases.
But some analysts said the popularity of “War Room” shows the value of movies that affirm people’s view of the world. The Christian audience, in particular, is large. About 7 in 10 Americans identify as Christian, though that proportion has shrunk in recent years, according to the Pew Research Center.
“ ‘War Room’ is just the latest example of the power and box office clout of the faith-based audience and the profound interest that this group has in supporting movies that reflect their values and worldview,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior data analyst at Rentrak.
Danielle Wright learned about the film three weeks ago on Facebook, after seeing several postings from friends that included the film’s trailer and read “War Room is Coming, War Room is Coming!”
Excited by what she saw, Wright, who is the host of an online radio show called “Power of Prayer,” reached out directly to the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures Entertainment, to organize a preview screening for church leaders.
She said Sony agreed to organize the showing for pastors in the Bakersfield, Calif., area one day before the film’s official release. More than 200 church leaders and community organizers showed up.
“I thought, ‘Wow, a movie about prayer at a time when our nation really needs prayer,’ ” Wright said. “With so much unease in our society that is shaking people to the core, this is the catalyst we need.”