Randall Wallace didn't expect a rock-star reception when he went on the road to promote his faith-based drama "Heaven Is for Real" ahead of its Easter-weekend release.
Yet at the First Assembly of God Church in Phoenix, 9,000 congregants greeted the filmmaker with a standing ovation. A few days later, 11,000 boisterous students packed a convocation in the sports arena at Liberty University, a Christian college in Lynchburg, Va., where Wallace, best known for writing the 1995 battle biopic "Braveheart" and directing the equestrian drama "Secretariat," spoke about "Heaven Is for Real."
Recent faith-based and Bible-inspired films such as "Noah," "Son of God," and "God's Not Dead" have galvanized Hollywood with robust showings at the box office. One analyst dubbed 2014 "the year of the biblical movie." But with the surge of major movie studios, marquee stars and prestige filmmakers lining up to shoot faith-based projects, Hollywood is finding it isn't always easy to usher viewers from the church pew to the multiplex.
Religious moviegoers may be actively searching out more spiritually engaging content, but they remain on high alert for perceived distortions of biblical doctrine or any attempt at a bait and switch.
"There's been a lot of effort to market to what they call the faith-based community," Wallace said. "People have gone out to argue to churches that some movie is faith-based or relevant when it's got nothing to do with what the churches are about. Those ministers view this approach like spam in their mailbox."
Nevertheless, persuading religious leaders to talk up the movies in a church setting as a means of sparking larger conversations about spiritual uplift has become a top priority in creating the kind of pre-release awareness that can lead to massive ticket sales.
"We pioneered taking clips from movies and partnering them with detailed sermon outlines, illustrations and resource materials that pastors could utilize at their choosing," said Jonathan Bock, founder and president of Grace Hill Media.
Many in attendance at Wallace's church events were enticed by "Heaven Is for Real's" source material: the bestselling 2010 memoir by Christian pastor Todd Burpo subtitled "A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back."
"This movie generates so much positive reaction, our thought was, 'Let's go out and show it in as many places as we can,'" Wallace said. "The most immediate place where you can raise huge audience interest has been in megachurches and those tend to be evangelical and even Pentecostal. Where people have big emotion. Great music. Real commitment. Great passion."
Still, Wallace — who studied religion at Duke University and attended seminary — never lost sight of certain realities that are slowly turning into a kind of gospel across the film business. Namely, that it's a mistake to treat Christian filmgoers as a monolithic audience by marketing movies to them with a "preachy" approach.
Bock agrees that there is no single surefire method to reaching churchgoing viewers. "This is not a one-size-fits-all proposition," Bock cautions. "You're talking about an audience of people that is enormous and covers every demographic there is."
The latest evidence that buzz from the pulpit pays dividends is "God's Not Dead," an independently produced Christian drama that cost less than $3 million but surpassed all industry expectations by grossing an impressive $35 million in just three weeks of release.
"All these different churches gave it their seal of approval," said David A.R. White, a producer of "God's Not Dead" and co-founder of Pure Flix Entertainment, the film's distributor.
That happened because Pure Flix set up screenings for 8,000 pastors in the two months leading up to the film's theatrical debut.
"Some people say, 'You're losing a lot of money with the pre-screenings.' But for us," White said, "the pastors are the gatekeepers to the church body. If they believe in what we're doing, they can talk about it from the pulpit."
DeVon Franklin is a producer of "Heaven Is for Real" who also serves as the senior vice president of production at Columbia Pictures with a sideline as a preacher with a dedicated following. He emphasized that the audience of nearly 200 million Americans who self-identify as Christians and go to church at least once a month has grown weary of being seen as a niche concern by Hollywood.