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What I Can Only Imagine’s box success tells us about the faith-based movie audience

The Christian film was America’s third-biggest movie on its opening weekend.

J. Michael Finley stars in I Can Only Imagine as MercyMe frontman Bart Millard
J. Michael Finley stars in I Can Only Imagine as MercyMe frontman Bart Millard.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Box office prognosticators taking a look at the weekend’s returns were in for a surprise. Behind Black Panther, which became the first movie since Avatar to spend five weeks in first place, and Tomb Raider, which clocked the sixth-biggest opening weekend for a video game movie, was a bit of an oddball.

The third-biggest movie in America this weekend was I Can Only Imagine, a Christian movie that shares a title with a Christian song that first charted 17 years ago. It’s a competent retelling of the story of songwriter Bart Millard (played by newcomer J. Michael Finley) and his journey to forgive his abusive, alcoholic father (Dennis Quaid), as well as his father’s movement toward faith before his death.

J. Michael Finley plays Bart Millard in I Can Only Imagine
J. Michael Finley plays Bart Millard in I Can Only Imagine.

Directed by brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin, whose previous movies like Woodlawn, Mom’s Night Out, and October Baby were modest box office successes, I Can Only Imagine startled many by hauling in just over $17 million, making more than $10,000 per screen and beating A Wrinkle in Time in its second weekend. That means it’s the seventh-biggest faith-based film opening ever (the fourth if the Narnia films don’t count), and the biggest since Heaven Is For Real in 2014.

The movie’s success was unexpected for some, with analysts calling it “the big surprise of the weekend,” given that it didn’t screen for critics and wasn’t widely marketed. But I Can Only Imagine was set up for success from the start.

I Can Only Imagine is based on the best-selling Christian music single of all time

There are a few reasons that I Can Only Imagine was audience catnip, and the biggest is probably right there in the title: The movie tells the story behind a massively successful and beloved contemporary song that was ubiquitous on Christian radio — and eventually crossed over to mainstream radio — in the early aughts.

“I Can Only Imagine” is a song by the band MercyMe, first released on their independent album The Worship Project and then rerecorded as the lead single for their 2001 major-label debut album, Almost There. A piano-driven ballad in which lead singer Bart Millard addresses Jesus, wondering what it will be like to finally be in heaven, was almost instantly a success on Christian radio. At the 2002 Dove Awards (the Grammys of the Christian music industry), Millard won Songwriter of the Year, and the song won two awards, including Song of the Year.

The song is explicitly Christian in nature, so it’s a bit surprising that it eventually crossed over into mainstream and Top 40 radio. Plenty of Christian artists have had crossover hits before — Jars of Clay’s “Flood” and Amy Grant’s “Baby Baby” are probably two of the most famous — but it’s rare to find a crossover Christian song that explicitly mentions Jesus, as “I Can Only Imagine” does.

But in 2003 and 2004, “I Can Only Imagine” charted on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary format, peaking at the fifth slot, and on the Hot 100, where it peaked at No. 71. The single went double platinum — the only Christian song, at present, to have reached that distinction — and it’s the best-selling Christian single of all time. It still regularly pops up on Christian radio and has been covered by artists including Amy Grant, Jeff Carson, Wynonna Judd, Emerson Drive, Marie Osmond, and Tamela Mann.

So tying the movie to the song almost guaranteed a sizable built-in audience on top of the built-in audience it already had: the “faith-based” or “faith-driven” audience, which rewarded the film with an A+ CinemaScore. And as the film’s opening weekend box office shows, that’s not just a big audience — it’s a very precisely targeted one.

The faith-based audience has a proven record of profitable openings

The faith-based audience has proven over and over that it can bring in a lot of money at the box office, even for low-budget movies. God’s Not Dead, one of the most successful faith-based movies of all time, ultimately earned more than $60 million on a budget of about $2 million.

And faith-based movies often have stellar opening weekends. As critic Peter Chattaway noted on Twitter, this is a pattern:

The “faith-based audience,” often conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians, has a few distinctive entertainment preferences that the industry has learned to tap. Usually movies for that audience need to be free of any objectionable content, including profanity, sex, drugs or alcohol, and certain kinds of violence (though war or Bible-related violence can be okay).

There should be some sort of Christian theme, though in some movies it’s more pointed than others, and they usually have a family- and community-focused plot, almost always set in America (unless it’s a film based on the Bible, in which case it should not deviate much from the text).

They also tend to be uplifting and inspirational in nature — football-related stories and near-death experiences are especially successful. Frequently they’re less about evangelizing than about bolstering a faith that already exists. In other words, they’re usually successful because they preach to the choir.

There are exceptions to all of these rules, of course. The Passion of the Christ is still the gold standard of faith-based filmmaking, and it’s a grueling, graphically violent R-rated film in Aramaic, with elements drawn from certain Catholic traditions rather than the actual biblical text.

But a film like I Can Only Imagine successfully conforms to the usual template: It’s an inspirational, PG-rated film about forgiveness, redemption, and love, and a person who isn’t a devoted Christian could still be moved by the father-son relationship.

It’s not about a near-death experience, but the song and the plot give a comforting perspective on death and the afterlife. It has at least two recognizable movie actors among its cast (Dennis Quaid and Cloris Leachman), which is still somewhat unusual for a Christian film. And it centers on a beloved ballad that is performed onstage by the end of the film.

The film also opened in a weekend with virtually no competition for its audience; the closest possibility was A Wrinkle in Time (which sat at No. 4 this weekend in its second week of release), but that film was stripped of its most Christian elements, which may have reduced its pull among the faith-based audience.

So when viewed within the context of its presumed audience, I Can Only Imagine’s strong performance at the box office makes sense — and it’s no surprise that the audience gave it an A+ CinemaScore. A high CinemaScore indicates that the audience who bought tickets for a film got what they were looking for, and I Can Only Imagine had that audience locked up from the start, with virtually no competition on its opening weekend.

But that’s about to change.

The next few weeks are especially interesting for those who watch the faith-based movie audience

As Box Office Mojo’s Brad Brevet notes, there are two more films aimed at the faith-based audience in the next two weeks (not coincidentally, on the weekends of Palm Sunday and Easter). And the way those track against I Can Only Imagine, and how they perform in their opening weekends, will be telling about the audience’s interests.

J. Michael Finley plays Bart Millard in I Can Only Imagine
J. Michael Finley plays Bart Millard in I Can Only Imagine.

That’s because movies for the faith-based audience can be broken into three main categories. One is the inspirational category, more uplifting than specifically evangelistic, to which I Can Only Imagine belongs, along with high-performing movies like Heaven Is For Real, War Room, and The Shack.

Another is stories based on the Bible, with movies like The Passion of the Christ and Son of God. And the third is movies that are essentially political in nature, focusing on narratives that posit conservative Christians as a group persecuted by a variety of groups (atheists, liberals, elite academics, the ACLU); the God’s Not Dead movies fit into this category.

On the Friday before Palm Sunday, Paul, Apostle of Christ a biopic about the biblical figure of Paul — will open in theaters and start competing with I Can Only Imagine for the faith-based audience. Writer and director Andrew Hyatt previously directed films including Full of Grace, a story drawing on tradition about Mary, the mother of Jesus, helping guide the early church through a fractious period in the last days of her own life. Paul, Apostle of Christ also stars Jim Caviezel, who is best known among the faith-based audience for playing Jesus in The Passion of the Christ (and reportedly will reprise his role in an upcoming sequel).

And on Good Friday, God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness, the third installment in the God’s Not Dead series, opens in theaters. The two prior films in the series have tapped into matters that align with politically conservative interests (largely the rights of teachers and students to speak about God in high school and college classrooms); in this one, a pastor discovers that his church has burned down and that the university on which it was housed is using this as a reason to move the church off campus.

The God’s Not Dead series is hugely popular — and, like I Can Only Imagine, takes its title from a song, this time from the Christian rock band the Newsboys — and will pose stiff competition to the other two films.

What audiences prefer may indicate which sort of faith-based movie performs best in the marketplace, and it’s possible that it may even gesture at how big the tent is for the faith-based movie audience — whether it tracks more in line with religious or political preference, or if the two are in lockstep. If God’s Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness performs below I Can Only Imagine, for instance, that may indicate a weariness with politically tinged films and a preference for more broadly inspirational movies. If they bring in similar numbers, however, it may indicate that the Venn diagram between the two is close to a perfect circle.

In any case, the success of I Can Only Imagine confirms that while the faith-based audience might be distinctive in its tastes, it’s a power player at the box office. Once again, it seems that notions about the power of “niche” audiences might need a refresh. And for the movie business and those who analyze it, it’s worth noting: There’s a huge segment of the moviegoing audience that automatically supports movies like I Can Only Imagine, and the returns on that investment are very temporal.

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