By Michael Foust
A 75-country mission trip would be unfeasible for most Christians, but for filmmaker Jon Erwin, reaching that many countries with the gospel doesn’t require a passport or an overseas flight.
Thanks to his surprise hit film I Can Only Imagine, Erwin will reach 75 countries and six continents with the message of Christ by the end of the year — and he hasn’t had to leave his home state of Alabama.
The film released on DVD, Blu-ray and digital platforms in the U.S. in June but is still playing in theaters elsewhere.
Theaters in Chile, Nicaragua, Paraguay and South Korea showed it in June, and it’s scheduled to open in Germany in September. It previously played in Australia, Hong Kong, South Africa and Russia.
All total, theaters in 75 countries either have released it or have future plans to do so. The film opened at No. 1 in the U.S. in DVD sales and rentals during its first week of release this month.
Erwin, along with his brother Andrew directed I Can Only Imagine, which tells the story behind the famous MercyMe song and details how lead singer Bart Millard’s abusive father came to Christ late in life.
“Many people who are hostile to the worldview of the movie are paying for the right to distribute it in other countries, which is amazing,” Jon Erwin told Baptist Press. “But that’s the power of mass entertainment.”
Their first big hit
It’s also the power of hit movies. Erwin’s two previous films — 2014’s Mom’s Night Out and 2016’s Woodlawn — finished below expectations at the box office and, subsequently, had limited reach internationally.
Woodlawn played in only one other country (South African) while Mom’s Night Out reached three (Australia, South Africa and Sweden), according to data at Box Office Mojo.
But I Can Only Imagine over-performed at the box office, finishing in the Top 5 in total gross in its first three weekends and, so far, is the No. 1 independent film of 2018.
As of June 2018 it had grossed more than $83 million domestically, making it the sixth highest-grossing faith film of all time, following The Passion of The Christ, the three Narnia films, and Heaven is for Real, according to Box Office Mojo.
In fact, I Can Only Imagine made more money in its first weekend in March than Woodlawn did in its entire run. It also did better than big-money Hollywood films.
Warner Brothers’ Tomb Raider had a production budget of $94 million and was released the same weekend as I Can Only Imagine, but ended its run grossing $57 million — less than Imagine, which had a $7 million budget.
Similarly, Universal’s Pacific Rim Uprising had a budget of $150 million and was released around the same time but finished its run with only $59 million.
It is but the latest faith-based hit to get international attention. For example, Miracles From Heaven (2016) played in nearly 30 countries, while War Room (2015) reached 15 countries.
The success of I Can Only Imagine was a welcome surprise for the Erwin brothers, who had received positive feedback from moviegoers on Woodlawn and Mom’s Night Out only to watch those films disappoint at the box office.
“It was fun to see the audience shock the industry,” Erwin told BP. “There’s really no way to explain it except God’s hand of blessing. It was poured out on the film in a way that none of us can really describe.”
The ‘Air Force’ for churches
Yet unlike many filmmakers in the movie industry, the Erwins aren’t chasing money and riches. Their films have a higher purpose.
“We tell people that what we do is make movies, but we do it to spread the gospel and support the local church,” Erwin said.
“I think the local church is the hope of the world, and we believe our role is as its Air Force. We want to support people on the ground with stories and tools that they can use. A movie theater is an incredible neutral site to reach your community and then get them to church. It’s exciting to hear stories of how that’s working.”
Andrew Erwin agreed, asserting that if a movie “doesn’t impact and change lives,” then he’d rather find a different job.
“There’s a lot easier jobs to go do,” he said. “… [Movies are] a tool that, as hearts are pricked and people are turned and they say, ‘I want to know more about this Jesus,’ — then you can step in and engage.”
Moviegoers in March filled their social media accounts with testimonies of the movie’s impact. One woman wrote on her Twitter feed how she and her son were leaving the theater when a lady asked, “Do you know Jesus?” Although Stone is a Christian, the woman — a stranger — wasn’t. She gave her life to Christ.
“We prayed, cried, hugged [and] welcomed her home. This movie was just for her!” Stone wrote.
Jon Erwin told the story of a moviegoer in South Dakota who harbored feelings of bitterness and anger toward his long-lost dad, but after watching the movie refused to leave the theater until he found his father through Facebook. They met the next day and reconciled.
“It’s just incredible,” Erwin said, “to see the ways that people use the film as a tool to help change lives.”
The power of story
Jon Erwin calls entertainment “America’s second-largest export,” and he believes the church should take advantage of the popularity of films because, as he says, people are naturally “wired” for stories.
“Jesus gave us the model for how [a movie] should be used. He told really relatable, simple, emotionally powerful stories. And then He explained the truth of them,” Erwin said.
“And there’s the model. A movie is a modern-day parable. The motion picture is a new way — and an exponentially powerful way — to do a very old thing, which is to tell a story. I heard someone say stories are the language of our hearts and mass entertainment is the language of our time.”
Because of the power of a good story, movies naturally lead to conversations, Erwin said.
“People identify with it,” Erwin said. “People want to talk about it. People want to talk about their own life. It gives permission to talk about things that the movie deals with and it creates an opportunity.”
Erwin, though, is quick to say a movie can’t fill every role in a gospel conversation. He likens it to a volleyball game. He and the film can “set” the ball, but someone else — that is, people in the local church — have to “spike it.”
The next Erwin movie?
Erwin isn’t ready to announce his next project, but he acknowledges that the success of I Can Only Imagine has expanded what is possible.
“To quote Disney, we don’t make movies to make money,” Erwin said. “We make money so that we can make more movies. That’s gonna happen here. … My dad, when he bought us our first camera when I was 16 years old, said, ‘Dream bold, dream big, dream the impossible.’ The success of I Can Only Imagine is allowing us to dream bigger.
“We’ve just begun to see what Christian films can be.”