Box office: Bible movies underperform on three continents while I Can Only Imagine goes from success to success

Box office: Bible movies underperform on three continents while I Can Only Imagine goes from success to success March 27, 2018

The last weeks before Easter often see a glut of “faith-based” movies, and this year is no exception. Two films aimed squarely at the religious market are currently playing in North American theatres, and a third film that tells a biblical story but was made for a more general audience is currently playing in Europe, Australia and elsewhere.

Only one of these films has been doing all that well at the box office, though.

The big success story right now is I Can Only Imagine, which has earned $39.5 million in its first eleven days of release in North America. That alone puts it among the top ten “faith-based” films of all time, and there’s still plenty of revenue to come.

I Can Only Imagine grossed $17.1 million and was the third-highest-grossing film of the week when it opened March 16, despite being on only 1,629 screens. Every other film in the top ten that week was playing in between 2,402 and 3,980 theatres.

Then, in its second weekend, I Can Only Imagine expanded to 2,253 theatres and grossed another $13.6 million, landing in third place again (behind Pacific Rim Uprising, which opened to $28.1 million, and Black Panther, which took in another $17.1 million).

Not bad for a film that reportedly had a production budget of only $7 million.

And then there are the other two films.

Paul, Apostle of Christ — the first Bible movie to star Jim Caviezel since The Passion of the Christ revived the genre fourteen years ago — opened last Friday on 1,473 screens and grossed only $5.2 million, one of the lowest openings for a recent Bible movie.

Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene has been playing in various locations around the world since March 15 — and in at least some of them, it has been deemed a “flop”.

The Guardian reported last week that Mary Magdalene had opened weakly in the UK:

Is Mary Magdalene a prestige drama, targeting audiences attracted by Lion director Garth Davis and a cast including Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tahar Rahim? Or is it aiming for the faith crowd, who propelled Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to £11.1m at UK cinemas?

The answer, so far, is that it’s succeeding at being neither, based on its debut of £239,000 from 423 cinemas, yielding a weak £565 average. In 2004, The Passion of the Christ grossed £2.02m on its first weekend of national wide release, from 323 cinemas.

As for Australia (and other countries), If.com.au reports:

The See-Saw Films/Porchlight Films production, which co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter and Tahar Rahim as Judas, generated $152,000 on 117 locations, a per-screen average of $1,300, and $217,000 with previews for Transmission Films.

“We certainly planned for a stronger result. With Easter on our second weekend we’re looking to sustain the box office and hopefully let word-of-mouth grow further, particularly into the faith audience,” Transmission’s Andrew Mackie tells IF.

Last week exhibitors lamented there was little or no interest in group bookings from churches and other religious groups, which posed the question: If the portrayal of Mary Magdalene as the 13th Apostle did not resonate among the devout why would non-believers be interested?

Wallis Cinemas’ Bob Parr said: “It is disappointing. We have noticed that other faith films in the market are softer than we have experienced in previous years.”

Cinema Nova general manager Kristian Connelly said the strongest figures came from key upscale and art house venues including Cinema Nova. “We were certainly hoping for a more bullish opening weekend but our audience is still catching up on the awards season titles Three Billboards, Lady Bird, The Shape Of Water and the like,” he said.

The drama is struggling to make an impact in Europe, taking a decent $1.3 million after its second weekend in Italy but just $770,000 in the UK, $702,000 in Spain and $626,000 in Germany. Brazil has contributed $671,000.

Mary Magdalene does not currently have a North American release date, because the rights on this continent are owned by the Weinstein Company and it is not yet clear what the fate of that company or its assets will be. But the film’s weak performance overseas doesn’t bode well for its chances of getting a theatrical release here.

There are no major Bible movies in production right now, and the underperformance of Paul and Mary Magdalene may mean that the genre will lie dormant again for a while.1

But the success of I Can Only Imagine shows that “faith-based” films do have some life left in them. The question is how many of these films the market can handle at a time.

We may get another chance to find out this Friday when God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness, the third film in the God’s Not Dead series, opens in 1,685 theatres.

Here are some stats re: the new “faith-based” films and their box-office performance:

I Can Only Imagine had the fourth-biggest first-weekend gross:

  1. 2004 — The Passion of the Christ — $83.8 million in 3,408 theatres
  2. 2014 — Son of God — $25.6 million in 3,260 theatres
  3. 2014 — Heaven Is for Real — $22.5 million in 2,417 theatres
  4. 2018 — I Can Only Imagine — $17.1 million in 1,629 theatres
  5. 2017 — The Shack — $16.2 million in 2,888 theatres
  6. 2016 — Miracles from Heaven — $14.8 million in 3,047 theatres
  7. 2016 — Risen — $11.8 million in 2,915 theatres
  8. 2015 — War Room — $11.4 million in 1,135 theatres
  9. 2011 — Soul Surfer — $10.6 million in 2,214 theatres
  10. 2017 — The Star — $9.8 million in 2,837 theatres

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I Can Only Imagine had the third-highest first-weekend per-screen average of any film that opened in at least 780 theatres (most of the films below opened in over 1,000):

  1. 2004 — The Passion of the Christ — $83.8 million / $27,554 avg.
  2. 2014 — God’s Not Dead — $9.2 million / $11,817 avg.
  3. 2018 — I Can Only Imagine — $17.1 million / $10,503 avg.
  4. 2015 — War Room — $11.4 million / $10,001 avg.
  5. 2014 — Heaven Is for Real — $22.5 million / $9,318 avg.
  6. 2008 — Fireproof — $6.8 million / $8,148 avg.
  7. 2014 — Son of God — $25.6 million / $7,853 avg.
  8. 2011 — Courageous — $9.1 million / $7,849 avg.
  9. 2005 — The Gospel — $7.5 million / $7,764 avg.
  10. 2002 — Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie — $6.2 million / $6,597 avg.

I Can Only Imagine had the third-highest second-weekend gross (films that added an extra 200+ theatres in their second week have an asterisk * next to their titles):

  1. 2004 — The Passion of the Christ — $53.2 million / -36.5%
  2. 2014 — Heaven Is for Real* — $14.4 million / -36.3%
  3. 2018 — I Can Only Imagine* — $13.8 million / -19.1%
  4. 2014 — Son of God — $10.4 million / -59.5%
  5. 2017 — The Shack — $10.0 million / -38.1%
  6. 2016 — Miracles from Heaven — $9.6 million / -34.6%
  7. 2015 — War Room* — $9.5 million / -16.5%
  8. 2014 — God’s Not Dead* — $8.8 million / -4.5%
  9. 2011 — Soul Surfer — $7.3 million / -31.4%
  10. 2017 — The Star — $6.9 million / -29.4%

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I Can Only Imagine had the fourth-highest second-weekend per-screen average:

  1. 2004 — The Passion of the Christ — $53.2 million / $16,797 avg.
  2. 2014 — God’s Not Dead* — $8.8 million / $7,468 avg.
  3. 2015 — War Room* — $9.5 million / $6,213 avg.
  4. 2018 — I Can Only Imagine* — $13.6 million / $6,038 avg.
  5. 2014 — Heaven Is for Real* — $14.4 million / $5,305 avg.
  6. 2008 — Fireproof — $4.0 million / $4,680 avg.
  7. 2011 — Courageous — $4.9 million / $4,193 avg.
  8. 2017 — The Shack — $10.0 million / $3,465 avg.
  9. 2011 — Soul Surfer — $7.3 million / $3,283 avg.
  10. 2016 — Miracles from Heaven — $9.7 million / $3,182 avg.

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I Can Only Imagine currently has the tenth-highest total gross within the genre:

  1. 2004 — The Passion of the Christ — $370.8 million
  2. 2014 — Heaven Is for Real — $91.4 million
  3. 2015 — War Room — $67.8 million
  4. 2016 — Miracles from Heaven — $61.7 million
  5. 2014 — God’s Not Dead — $60.8 million
  6. 2014 — Son of God — $59.7 million
  7. 2017 — The Shack — $57.4 million
  8. 2011 — Soul Surfer — $43.9 million
  9. 2017 — The Star — $40.9 million
  10. 2018 — I Can Only Imagine — $39.5 million
  11. 2006 — The Nativity Story — $37.6 million
  12. 2016 — Risen — $36.9 million

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Paul, Apostle of Christ had one of the lower opening weekends of any Bible movie that was released on more than a handful of screens over the last 40 years:

  1. 2004 — The Passion of the Christ — $83.8 million
  2. 2014 — Noah — $43.7 million
  3. 2014 — Son of God — $25.6 million
  4. 2014 — Exodus: Gods & Kings — $24.1 million
  5. 2009 — Year One — $19.6 million
  6. 2017 — The Shack — $16.2 million
  7. 1998 — The Prince of Egypt — $14.5 million
  8. 2016 — Risen — $11.8 million
  9. 2016 — Hail, Caesar! — $11.4 million
  10. 2016 — Ben-Hur — $11.2 million
  11. 2017 — The Star — $9.8 million
  12. 2006 — The Nativity Story — $7.8 million
  13. 2002 — Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie — $6.2 million
  14. 2018 — Paul, Apostle of Christ — $5.2 million
  15. 1981 — History of the World, Part I — $4.8 million
  16. 2006 — One Night with the King — $4.1 million
  17. 1980 — Wholly Moses! — $3.6 million
  18. 2016 — The Young Messiah — $3.3 million
  19. 1985 — King David — $2.2 million
  20. 2018 — Samson — $1.9 million
  21. 2007 — The Ten Commandments — $478,910

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Paul, Apostle of Christ currently ranks 20th in terms of total gross among Bible movies released over the last 40 years (and 16th among films from the last 20 years):

  1. 2004 — The Passion of the Christ — $370.8 million
  2. 1998 — The Prince of Egypt — $101.4 million
  3. 2014 — Noah — $101.2 million
  4. 2014 — Exodus: Gods and Kings — $65 million
  5. 2014 — Son of God — $59.7 million
  6. 2017 — The Shack — $57.4 million
  7. 2009 — Year One — $43.3 million
  8. 2017 — The Star — $40.9 million
  9. 2006 — The Nativity Story — $37.6 million
  10. 2016 — Risen — $36.9 million
  11. 1981 — History of the World, Part I — $31.7 million
  12. 2016 — Hail, Caesar! — $30.5 million
  13. 2016 — Ben-Hur — $26.4 million
  14. 2002 — Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie — $25.6 million
  15. 1979 — Monty Python’s Life of Brian — $20 million
  16. 1980 — Wholly Moses! — $14.2 million
  17. 2006 — One Night with the King — $13.4 million
  18. 1988 — The Last Temptation of Christ — $8.4 million
  19. 2016 — The Young Messiah — $6.5 million
  20. 2018 — Paul, Apostle of Christ — $5.8 million
  21. 1985 — King David — $5.1 million
  22. 2018 — Samson — $4.7 million
  23. 2003 — The Gospel of John — $4.1 million
  24. 2007 — The Ten Commandments — $952,820

1. It’s striking to think that Bible movies of one sort or another have been in continuous production for about the last six years, ever since Darren Aronofsky’s Noah got the green light in 2012. By the time that film came out, Son of God had already come out and Exodus: Gods and Kings was in post-production. And by the time that film came out, Risen and The Young Messiah were at least partially filmed. And by the time those films came out, Ben-Hur and The Star were well into (post-)production. And by the time those films came out, Samson, Mary Magdalene and Paul, Apostle of Christ were already in the can. And somewhere in the middle of all that, we had the TV productions Killing Jesus, A.D. The Bible Continues and Of Kings & Prophets, as well. The release of Paul, Apostle of Christ marks the first time in several years that a Bible movie has come out and there were no other Bible movies waiting in the wings — though one still hears the odd rumour.

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