by Aaron Wilson
When it comes to financial gambles, Hollywood executives are high rollers—betting millions of dollars their movies will fill theaters.
With so much on the line for studios, industry insiders eagerly study box office results in an attempt to close the gap between projected earnings and actual ticket sales.
So when a faith-based film like I Can Only Imagine snags $17.1 million on opening weekend and more than doubles its expected take, it turns some heads.
As I Can Only Imagine continues to over-perform at the box office, here are four other Christian movies you should know about that exceeded Hollywood expectations.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Accounting for inflation, The Ten Commandments earned the equivalence of $1.2 billion in today’s dollars, putting the epic starring Charlton Heston in the No. 6 spot of all time at the box office for adjusted revenue.
While Paramount Pictures hoped The Ten Commandments would make up for its staggering production costs—the highest of any movie ever made at the time—the film still defied expectations at the box office as it became the top-grossing movie not just of the year, but of the decade.
Perhaps most surprising of all though was the film’s long-term success.
The Ten Commandments has been shown annually on network television around Passover and Easter every year since 1973.
On its latest showing in 2017, the airing continued to generate revenue by drawing more than five million viewers. Pretty impressive for a movie filmed six decades ago.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ set the standard for how a Christian movie produced after the turn of the century could become a box office success. Shot on a $30 million budget, the film grossed more than $611 million worldwide.
But the film’s financial success was never a surety. In fact, Gibson had trouble getting a Hollywood studio and distributor to back the project due to the film’s violence (which garnered an “R” rating), its use of subtitles, and worries the movie would be anti-Semitic.
Partially due to these issues, Passion of the Christ was predicted to open in the $20-25 million range.
Instead, the movie soared to $117.5 million its first five days, selling more tickets in this short window than Gibson’s Braveheart did over the course of its entire theatrical run.
Passion of the Christ was the No. 1 movie in America for four weeks and became the top-grossing Christian film of all time (not counting for inflation).
The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
In the early 2000s, studios were finding success adapting fantasy literature to the big screen with the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises.
It was little surprise then when Walt Disney Pictures announced a partnership with Walden Media to produce an adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ beloved children’s book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
What was unexpected was just how well the film would do—both at the box office and on DVD. It opened as the No. 1 movie in America and produced what was at the time Disney’s largest-ever opening weekend haul.
The film went on to gross more than $745 million worldwide. Even more of a shocker, the movie made almost twice as much through its home release as it did in U.S. theaters—earning more than $445 million in DVD sales.
This success launched two sequels, both based on other books in the Chronicles of Narnia series.
Narnia fans can hold out hope Aslan is on the move again. In October 2018, Netflix announced it signed a multi-year deal with The C.S. Lewis Company to develop new film projects based on Lewis’ seven-volume The Chronicles of Narnia series.
Ever since Alex and Stephen Kendrick first released Flywheel in 2003 as a church-produced film created on a shoestring budget, the filmmaking siblings have been redefining what’s possible in Christian cinematography.
The brothers’ sophomore film, Facing the Giants (2006) earned more than $10 million at the box office and $41 million from DVD and video sales. Their most recent film, War Room (2015), became the No. 1 movie in America the second week of its theatrical run.
But it was in 2008, when the Kendrick brothers released Fireproof, that Hollywood really began to pay attention.
Fireproof’s modest $500,000 budget made use of hundreds of volunteers, donated locations, and borrowed set pieces. Yet, the film grossed more than $33 million in theaters, did $59 million in DVD sales, and launched a No. 1 New York Times Best Seller in The Love Dare.
While any of the Kendrick brothers’ films could easily have made this list, it was the surprise success of Fireproof that encouraged more studios to take a risk on lower-budgeted Christian movies.
The Kendrick Brothers are currently working on their sixth film with a targeted release of fall 2019.
What will be the next surprise hit Christian movie?
While the Christian film genre has seen its share of underperformers, this list documents the success religiously themed movies can have in Hollywood.
As new films like I Can Only Imagine continue to surprise the industry, it’s likely Christian themes will continue to make their way onto the big screen.
This is good news for Christians who seek to use movies as a springboard for conversations about faith and the gospel. Behind all the banter about box office projections and results, it’s what happens in a person’s life after the credits roll that makes for the best success story.
AARON WILSON (@AaronBWilson26) is associate editor for Facts & Trends.