To some Americans, Hollywood is a Camelot filled with glamor, riches, and beautiful people. And to others, it's an amoral place of materialism, sex, and debauchery, whose primary concerns are profit and power.
But it seems as though Hollywood is finally paying attention to the latter half.
The Rev. Roderick Dwayne Belin stood in front of a crowd of over 1,000 pastors in a hotel ballroom in Naperville, Illinois, recently, singing the praises of a Hollywood film.
Showing the gathered audience a trailer to the new 20th Century Fox film “Hidden Figures,” Rev. Belin explains:
“Imagine this clip playing to your congregation, perhaps tied to a theological discussion about our sacred lives and our secular lives and how there is really no division.”
“Hidden Figures” isn't an overtly religious film. It uses the format of a feel-good drama surrounding the story of unheralded black women behind the '60s NASA space race to deliver a message of faith that's relatable to everyone—yet it may have special resonance to Christians.
To that end, Wit PR—a discreet-profile company that pitches films to churches—invited seven prominent and influential pastors, including Rev. Belin, to watch the filming of “Hidden Figures” and spend time with its stars, including Kevin Costner and Taraji P. Henson.
Of the experience, Rev. Belin told the N.Y. Times:
“I came away really interested in using film to explore faith.”
It's part of a growing trend—or mission, if you like—by movie studios to build connections and seek the knowledge of Christian leaders in hopes of capturing a larger portion of the faith-based market and reversing Christian notions of Hollywood.
It's something studios are doing as quietly as possible—covertly, even—but the list of films being helped by churches, military groups, bloggers, and particularly marketing specialists, is evolving from overtly Christian films to mainstream ones.
It's a list which includes hits from across the genre spectrum, from animated fair like “Frozen,” to horror films like “The Conjuring,” to working-class hero dramas like “Sully”— and many more.
The ways in which Hollywood uses these new resources varies considerably—from marketers simply writing sermon bullet points for cast and crew, to studios flying actors, costume designers and producers to mega-church discussion groups.
Hollywood’s sudden desire to entreat to what it might see as “flyover-state” audiences has grown even more urgent since the election, when left-leaning movie executives, actors, and directed stood mouths agape with shock as heavily celebrity-endorsed Hillary Clinton lost the election.
The realization of the extent to which they were out of touch with vast swathes of the Americans populace—and that tens of millions of voters were indifferent to the fact that the likes of Leo DiCaprio or Mark Ruffalo endorsed Clinton—has driven the need to connect with those audiences into DefCon 5.
It's a need reflected by a downtrend in ticket sales over the past decade. In particular, the market for moviegoers aged 12 to 24 has been shrinking consistently for the past three years, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
To the men behind Wit PR, Marshall Mitchell and Corby Pons, Hollywood's newfound interest in the Christian market has had teachable moments for both “sides,” as Pons tells the NY Times:
“It’s amazing watching people in Hollywood discover there is interest in their content they never knew existed. On the faith side, some people are surprised to learn that, hey, there is good content coming from studios. Hollywood isn’t always the enemy.”
Whether or not the trend will continue, and we'll see more mainstream films with subtle or not-so-subtle religious overtones or subtexts, will largely depend on the continued success of films like “Hidden Figures,” which comes to theaters nationwide on January 6th.