Everett Collection; Jake Giles Netter/Lionsgate; Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions
Joey Nolfi
March 23, 2018 AT 10:24 PM EDT

No matter its size or scope, blessed be the fruit of a box office smash. But judging by forecaster reactions to the $17 million debut posted last weekend by the Dennis Quaid-starring Christian drama I Can Only Imagine, the industry is still at odds with how to handle the arrival of faith-based films on the mainstream market.

The latest widely released feature cut from religious cloth, I Can Only Imagine opened March 16 against big-budget studio actioner Tomb Raider and sturdy Marvel holdover Black Panther. When the film — which was made on a $7 million budget — exceeded modest expectations, finishing the frame at No. 3 ahead of the new gay coming-of-age dramedy Love, Simon, headlines suggested the debut was a “surprise” victory for distributor Roadside Attractions. If you were crunching numbers and peeping patterns, however, doubting Imagine‘s earning potential would’ve been downright sinful.

Much like Black Panther (or any superhero movie, for that matter) staked its claim atop the domestic chart for five consecutive weeks thanks to a pre-established audience of comic book fans, faith-based films are bolstered by a popular religion that predates the first Marvel comic book’s October 1939 publication date by roughly 2,000 years. And religiously inclined titles have found an audience around the world throughout Hollywood history — Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ bagged $611.9 million globally in 2004, while the 1953 crucifixion drama The Robe earned nearly $601 million domestically when adjusted for ticket price inflation.

“There is this mainstream bubble that is marginalizing these types of films, and we do underestimate them,” explains comScore’s senior media analyst (and box office expert) Paul Dergarabedian, adding that the Easter holiday could inspire countless droves of parishioners to plop down cash at the multiplex at the request of their religious leaders. “The faith-based films may be bolstered by perhaps the most grassroots of all movie marketing, which is at the church level. It’s like having a watercooler discussion at work, but you’re having a watercooler discussion in front of a church. You can imagine that, on Easter Sunday, when the leader of the flock is up there [giving a] sermon, it might be about going to see [a movie like the upcoming Jim Caviezel film] Paul, Apostle of Christ.”

Still, the phenomenon of micro-budgeted, faith-based pictures disrupting the box office arena dominated by the major studios is a relatively new concept. In the past five years alone, 76 Christian-leaning films have hit theaters, as opposed to the 25 released between 2008 and 2012. Many of them — released by Arizona-based independent distributor Pure Flix — have smaller budgets hovering between $3 million and $10 million, and typically turn a profit by the end of their run. Some of the biggest genre entries include The Shack (2017, $57.4 million), Miracles From Heaven (2016, $61.7 million), War Room, (2015, $67.8 million), God’s Not Dead (2014, $60.8 million), and Heaven Is for Real (2014, $91.4 million).

The question remains: why the sudden shift? As the rise of right-wing conservatism in Trump’s America largely happened outside the scope of the liberal bubbles surrounding the nation’s biggest cities, so has the religious film industry’s self-made success burgeoned outside the realm of traditional Hollywood. And, according to comScore and Screen Engine’s PostTrak survey data, it, too, is largely driven by older, white demographics.

“We don’t see them coming because the audience is developing at a grassroots level. It’s at the churches, with the influencers, the clergy, and among parishioners. Nobody [in the industry] is doing a survey or taking polls at churches about which parishioners are going to see a certain movie,” Dergarabedian says, confirming that I Can Only Imagine‘s polled ticket buyers were 68 percent white and 59 percent over the age of 25. “You almost have to be a part of that community to feel the groundswell developing.”

Outside of independent faith-based films speaking to an underserved population’s desires to see themselves represented onscreen, there’s another explanation for I Can Only Imagine registering the highest per-theater average among last weekend’s top 10, though. Like general audiences and music fans flocked to biopics like Walk the Line ($119 million) and Straight Outta Compton ($161 million), the recipe for success was built into the film’s DNA. I Can Only Imagine is adapted from the real-life story of the members of Christian country band MercyMe, which has, over a 24-year career, crossed the line that often separates religious music from the mainstream palette. The film itself bears the title of the band’s signature hit, which was certified 2x Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. Four of MercyMe’s albums have since charted within the top 10 of the Billboard 200 — a daunting feat for oft-pigeonholed faith-based acts typically shunned on the mainstream circuit.

“The song [element] certainly gave the film a contemporary feel. It wasn’t a historical drama like many faith-based films are,” Dergarabedian adds. “Then again, faith-based films come in all shapes, sizes, and genres. They can be family dramas, romantic, and even have comedic elements. Even if you look at some of Tyler Perry’s Madea movies, there’s an element of religion in those films, too. We’re also starting to see a lot of actors you wouldn’t necessarily associate with faith-based movies [come to them].”

Dergarabedian has a point. Quaid is just one of many notable actors who’ve delved into religious territory as of late, including Miracles From Heaven star Jennifer Garner, Heaven Is for Real actor Greg Kinnear, and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (The Shack). And more are gravitating to the super-profitable realm of faith-based films, with This Is Us breakout Chrissy Metz set to make her feature star debut in the upcoming Christian drama The Impossible and the aforementioned Caviezel, whose $5 million Paul, Apostle of Christ could be looking at a three-day haul in excess of $7.5 million through Sunday, per Box Office Pro.

“There’s a huge audience out there for these films,” says Dergarabedian. “Even if they land just inside the top 10 or even outside the top 10, they’re still highly profitable.”

Instead of relying on Hollywood to tell their stories, Christian filmmakers have been picking up cameras and producing faith-based movies themselves, but commercial distributors like TriStar (War Room) and Roadside Attractions (I Can Only Imagine) are slowly getting on the bandwagon.

“Bigger studios wouldn’t be getting into this business if they didn’t feel it was a profitable business. I Can Only Imagine is probably the most talked about movie in executive boardrooms this past week because it’s a wake-up call,” says Dergarabedian. “It seems like we’ve mined every genre [but this one].”

The unlikely comparison begs to be made then, that faith-based audiences and aficionados of similarly budgeted, similarly grossing horror pictures expect a certain authenticity from the products they consume. Cheap to shoot but timelessly satisfying when done effectively, successful projects in either genre largely depend on the filmmaker’s understanding of a set of well-known principles and thematic material to thrive, and anyone else stepping in to do the job comes off like a hack.

When cheap horror hits, it hits big. Standouts like Don’t Breathe ($157 million worldwide on a $10 million budget), Lights Out ($148 million worldwide on a $5 million budget), and Get Out ($255 million worldwide on a $4.5 million budget) posted margins substantially higher than Christian-oriented titles, but it’s clear that both genres attract passionate ticket buyers who aren’t easily fooled by quick cash-grabs.

With horror in a new era of popularity, the genre has reached new peaks of cultural relevance, and perhaps one day the consistent, money-making muscle flexed by faith-based films will no longer be brushed aside as a niche fluke.

“It’s a mistake to underestimate faith-based movies,” Dergarabedian concludes. “Just because you’re not seeing it in your own backyard, it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”

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