Straight Outta Compton won the box-office for a third straight weekend, but the longest lines at more than 1,100 theaters were for a faith-based family drama starring no one you’ve probably ever heard of. War Room swept into theaters with huge advance ticket sales, earning $4.05 million on Friday alone. While the Owen Wilson action movie, No Escape, underperformed, and Zac Efron’s movie We Are Your Friends was a major disappointment, War Room nearly dethroned Compton, earning $11.4 million and more than doubling the rap-music biopic’s per-screen average.
“We were thinking we would do well just to be in the top five,” War Room‘s director Alex Kendrick says. “Our last two films came out as the No. 4 movie, and so that would have been fine with us. When we had a shot at No. 3, we were ecstatic. And then when we ended up at No. 2, that was just like Christmas.”
War Room is the latest entry in a string of low-budget, faith-based hits from Kendrick and his brother Stephen, the team behind 2011’s Courageous, which is about police officers grappling with tragedy and fatherhood, and 2008’s Fireproof, which starred Kirk Cameron as a firefighter with a troubled marriage. War Room stars Priscilla Shirer and T.C. Stallings as a husband and wife who turn to strategic prayer to help their volatile relationship.
Both Courageous and Fireproof went on to gross more than $33 million domestically, but War Room is the first Kendrick brothers film to open in the double digits.
“We feel like we know our audience pretty well, and we know people of faith are yearning for movies that inspire and call them to a deeper walk in their faith,” Kendrick says. “This movie calls people to make prayer a priority, and we believe that it’s something our culture and our nation really needs — to turn back to God and to seek him in prayer. I think a lot of people are identifying with that, and it’s resonating with our audience.”
Made with a budget of only $3 million, War Room was distributed by Sony’s TriStar Pictures and Affirm Films, which has released some of the biggest faith-based hits in recent years. Soul Surfer, which tells the story of shark-attack victim Bethany Hamilton, earned more than $43 million in 2011, and last year’s Heaven is for Real, which starred Greg Kinnear as a father whose son has a near-death experience, went on to gross more than $91 million.
“I think the days of being surprised when faith-based movies do well should be over,” says Paul Dergarabedian, Rentrak’s senior media analyst. “Faith-based movies are filling a void and serving an audience that has been pretty much left out of the movie conversation for many years.”
“It’s our relationship with the faith-based audiences across the country that has allowed Sony Pictures to maintain its longevity and continued success at the forefront of this business, and we’re thrilled to see that continue with War Room,” says Rich Peluso, SVP of Affirm Films.
Part of Sony’s strategy for promoting faith-based films is to rely on a grassroots marketing team and to reach out to Christian leaders, many of whom use these films as a resource and discussion point. The Kendrick brothers, who are both ordained ministers, have cultivated relationships with religious leaders around the country, and Alex Kendrick said more than 85 churches in North Carolina got involved with War Room when they were shooting in Charlotte. The brothers have also released a number of War Room resources for churches and individuals, from books and Bible-study lesson plans to prayer cards and T-shirts.
“By opening up the story and characters to these leaders, we give them a sense of ownership that energizes them and helps them plan out how they can use our movies as tools inside their own tool boxes,” says Peluso.
The film’s grassroots efforts helped negate overwhelmingly negative reviews — War Room scored just a 27 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But Kendrick says faith-based films like his are essentially critic-proof, especially because most mainstream critics may not identify with the film’s message.
“It literally does not bother us,” Kendrick says about poor reviews. “We’re very comfortable and feel like we know the audience that this movie was intended for. When a critic says this doesn’t compare to what Hollywood does, we understand that, and it’s not offensive to us. We read their critiques and smile because we know it’s coming from a whole different vantage point.”
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