Preaching to the Christian masses

If you've ever dismissed the scope or importance of the Christian population in the US, you could lose out on two-thirds of American adults. According to a 2007 study by The Barna Group, a California-based company that conducts research about values and beliefs, 66% of Americans believe in the biblical definition of God.
September 1, 2008

If you’ve ever dismissed the scope or importance of the Christian population in the US, you could lose out on two-thirds of American adults. According to a 2007 study by The Barna Group, a California-based company that conducts research about values and beliefs, 66% of Americans believe in the biblical definition of God.

And even though that figure is five percent lower than it was in 2006, it’s still a massive group. But don’t assume it’s a monolithic community. ‘There are significant subsets that do behave differently,’ says George Barna, directing leader at The Barna Group, which has been analyzing this population since 1984. ‘For instance, evangelicals – who are born again, by definition – are different than non-evangelical adults, and both of them are radically different from non-born again adults – a segment we call notional Christians.’ Consequently, Barna says the same products and pitches don’t have the same appeal to each group.

Reaching this community with a film, regardless of whether there’s a Christian focus, therefore takes more than a cookie-cutter marketing campaign. If it is a faith-based film, though, says Byron Jones, VP of sales and marketing at Scottsdale, Arizona-based Christian film studio Pure Flix Entertainment, don’t pick up the same bad habits many studios have. When it comes to the distribution and promotion of these films, Jones finds studios often ‘apply marketing tactics and business plans reserved for Hollywood B movies rather than a total commitment to the marketplace outside of the Christian bookstores.’

Scrap the notion that this group has a radically different pattern of media consumption than other people, says Paul Lauer, president of LA’s Motive Entertainment, the company that did the marketing for Ben Stein’s recent doc, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which tackles the debate between religion and science. There’s a myth that Christians don’t watch movies or TV, play video games or listen to music, says Lauer. ‘The reality is that most church-going families are consuming all of those things, and in many cases we or our children are consuming things that are at odds with our lifestyle and morals,’ he says.

The result is a pent-up demand for products more in line with Christian values. ‘Essentially you have tens of millions of consumers who are, let’s say, eating food that doesn’t agree with them because it’s the only food available and they’re hungry, but if somebody comes along with food that is plentiful and agrees with their appetite, they’ll go after it,’ says Lauer. He references Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a film for which Motive directed the grassroots marketing campaigns. ‘The pent-up demand for that kind of entertainment that resonated with the values of those millions of consumers translated to $370 million at box office,’ says Lauer.

Reaching such a target audience requires speaking the group’s language and connecting at a deeper level. With many movies, Lauer says that entails providing value that furthers the group’s objectives in life. With Expelled, for example, he says many people wonder how to discuss their beliefs on the origins of life with others. If those looking to do so don’t have the data to defend their position, Lauer says they will be motivated to find it, so there’s an interest in seeing the film. The movie becomes more than mere entertainment – it’s an educational tool through which viewers will ‘gain something where they’ll be further along the path of their goals,’ says Lauer.

But marketing Expelled took more than an educational hook. Motive also did a grassroots campaign that included screenings for, and endorsements by, key leaders in the Christian community. It’s critical to forge legitimate connections. ‘You can’t fake an affinity with the faith market in an attempt to cash in on it any more than you could fake an affinity with Hispanic gangs or the African American market,’ says Lauer. ‘You go into those markets and try to speak their language – like ‘Yo, homey, I’m here to sell you something’ – and they’ll just laugh you right out the door.’

Cara Withers, marketing director at Fox Faith – a Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment initiative that picks up titles with Christian appeal from within Fox’s portfolios – agrees. After watching Walker George Films’ Young @ Heart, a doc about a senior citizens’ choir that Fox Faith then released on DVD in September, Withers saw themes of fellowship, serving others and living with purpose. She worked with another company to create a bible study discussion guide for the film to act as a core tool to market to the Christian community through various Christian outlets and Fox Faith’s website. ‘You have to be authentic,’ says Withers. ‘You can’t force anything into this market because they’ll see past your intentions. They know a good thing when they see it, so we’re very selective about the type of materials we create and promote into this market.’

Developing a mutually beneficial relationship with Christians means approaching them with respect, advises Lauer. ‘On the consumer side, they benefit because you say, ‘We want to create product that speaks to you and serves you’ and they’ll say, ‘If you do serve product that serves us and is honest, we’ll buy it,’ and that means you make money,’ he summarizes.

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.