Fox Faith: Is It Working?
It's been an up-and-down first year for Hollywood's first major "Christian" film label, with box office busts offset by strong video sales and rentals.
by Mark Moring | posted 10/09/07
It's been one year since 20th Century Fox became the first major Hollywood studio to launch a line of movies aimed specifically at a Christian audience. Since its debut last fall, Fox Faith has had hit-and-miss results, with poor box office numbers offset by strong video sales and rentals.
Some industry observers have wondered if the label might be in trouble, but studio execs say that's not the case.
"We're alive and well," said Steve Feldstein, senior vice president of Fox Home Entertainment, which oversees Fox Faith. "We are very much in the business."
Perhaps, but the first year has been a something of a roller coaster—not just in box office and sales figures, but with image and perception from both professionals and laypeople.
The notion of a "Christian film label" stirs all sorts of reactions, pro and con. Many Christians embrace the notion of having their "own" brand of movies. Others have long been concerned that such a venture is merely separating from the world by remaining in a "safe-for-the-whole-family" bubble, with the end result being poorly made films that "pander" to the Christian consumer and aren't taken seriously in the general market.
Meanwhile, one movie producer recently expressed frustration with Fox Faith's marketing strategy, and another said he will take his films elsewhere for distribution.
Rick Eldridge, producer of The Ultimate Gift, which earned a respectable $3.4 million at the box office, said the film might have done much better in its theatrical run last spring had it not been released under the Fox Faith label.
"I really felt this story had strong values that would hit home with the general market," Eldridge told Scripps-Howard recently, when his film released to DVD. "Then we got pigeon-holed into this little 'Christian' niche …. [I think] that caused some people to distance themselves from this movie. There was no need for that to happen."
Still, The Ultimate Gift broke even at the box office, and has fared quite well in its initial video rentals and sales, finishing in the Top 20 in both categories in its first two weeks on the market.
David Bixler, Fox's senior vice president of acquisitions, understood Eldridge's concerns, but added, "Look, Rick wants his movie to be seen by as many people as possible. He's concerned that if you label it, you might limit the audience. I'm not saying he's wrong. But I think the movie performed well enough to justify our decision."
'Not served by that label'
Another producer, Ralph Winter, who helmed Fox Faith flicks like Thr3e, The Visitation, and Hangman's Curse, said he will take some of his future projects to Lionsgate for distribution—starting with House, which will release sometime in 2008.
Winter clarified that he has nothing against Fox Faith; indeed, he was one of its original founders, and he praises the brand to this day. But he says the smaller films he produces—typically spiritual thrillers—aren't a good fit for Fox Faith.
"Our movies are more edgy and are not necessarily served by that label," Winter said, citing films derived from books by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. "We are working with stories that have a wider appeal than just Christians. Producing a spiritual thriller that is limited to Christians limits our general market appeal. It gets 'labeled.' Audiences that see a Fox Faith label have trouble seeing our spiritual thrillers as being legitimate—they feel it might be watered down and reject the movie without giving it a chance."
Winter said that's what happened with Thr3e, which earned $1 million at the box office in January. "In hindsight, we believe Thr3e would have done better without that label. To get to the audience that enjoys these kinds of thrillers, the Fox Faith label was an oxymoron. It made our movie seem 'soft.' How could this be a thriller if it is Fox Faith?"
Bixler said Winter and the team behind Thr3e "have been very vocal with us that Fox Faith was not a label that would best sell their movies theatrically. And after we released Thr3e, we began to think, Maybe these guys are right. Just because it has a faith element doesn't mean everything should be labeled 'faith,' because there's a broader audience."
Winter, who has also produced such Fox tentpoles as the X-Men trilogy and the two Fantastic Four films, is quick to add that the idea of a faith-based brand is a good one.
"It's good for the marketplace, and good for the Christian community," he said. "Is there a learning curve? Of course. We are learning, and Fox is learning. You can't jump to the end game and say everyone knows the right solution, when we are just starting out."
No easy answers
Media guru Phil Cooke, president of Cooke Pictures, said Fox Faith faces unique challenges from "a branding point of view" due to the diversity of the Christian community.
"While the general culture looks at 'Christians' being a homogenous group of people, we [Christians] track along a wide range of extremes in our thinking, our attitudes toward culture, and our doctrinal perspectives," Cooke said. "The Passion of The Christ, which pretty much set this 'faith-based' fascination off in the minds of Hollywood, was a traditional story of the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. It told a story that the main thrust of the Christian community can agree on, and as a result, hit the box office jackpot. But once you drift from that central story that is the core of our faith, all bets are off."
Cooke noted that such Fox Faith fare as The Last Sin Eater, The Redemption of Sarah Cain, and the Love Comes Softly films, all based on Christian novels, are "primarily appealing to women of faith. But there are plenty in the Christian community who would run screaming from the room at the thought of that genre or style. Ralph [Winter] is producing thrillers, and many conservative Christians think that's a dubious venture at best. Family films are no different. So, when you ask, 'What do people think of when they think of Fox Faith?', there's no easy answer. It's easy to get a consensus about Starbucks, Nike, or stock car racing, but when it comes to an expression of religious faith? Now, that's something altogether different.
"From a branding perspective, we live in an era of niches, and the truth is, the 'Christian' audience is too large to effectively brand as a whole. Whatever happens, Fox Faith represents the first serious effort of a major Hollywood studio to recognize, respect, and try to reach a Christian audience. While the marketing and branding strategy will no doubt continue to be adjusted and tweaked, other studios will follow in their path."
Fox's Feldstein and Bixler concur that mistakes have been made along the way, and that it's a model in constant need of adjustments and tweaks.
One likely change in strategy will be a bigger emphasis on direct-to-video projects. As part of the Fox Home Entertainment division, Fox Faith was primarily geared to the video market anyway, right from the start. But the lack of success at the box office likely means the brand will focus even more on direct-to-video and in retail.
Coming to your local TV set
They're also looking at more direct-to-TV releases, followed by video release, as was the case recently with The Redemption of Sarah Cain. The film had been slated for an August theatrical release, but was sold to Lifetime, a TV network aimed at women, where it had strong ratings. Bixler said Lifetime's offer was "too good a deal to turn down," and was likely more profitable than it would have been at the box office. (Sarah Cain hits DVD in January 2008.)
Fox Faith will also focus on retail partnerships, such as its deal with Family Christian Stores, who carry the entire Fox Faith catalog, plus other "family-friendly" Fox movies like Night at the Museum, Eragon, and Cheaper by the Dozen. A recent Family Christian Stores flyer included a special deal: A free DVD player "with purchase of any 3 Fox Faith or 20th Century Fox DVDs."
Another strategical change for Fox Faith will likely be fewer theatrical releases, since that's where they've taken some hits. Their first release, Love's Abiding Joy, earned a paltry $253,000 in October 2006. Four months later, The Last Sin Eater made just $388,000. In between, Thr3e barely earned $1 million. (Their biggest theatrical hits have been One Night With the King [$13 million] and The Ultimate Gift [$3.4 million].)
After initially blitzing the market with five theatrical releases in their first six months of existence—"We came out swinging," said Bixler—no Fox Faith films have been in theaters since The Ultimate Gift in March. And no more are planned until 2008.
Meanwhile, the Fox Faith website has been static for some five months; at this writing, it still says The Redemption of Sarah Cain and The Final Inquiry are "coming soon"—though the former has already come and gone (on TV) and the latter won't come out till 2008. The website's link to the Fox Faith Film Club now yields a page that says that the club "has been shut down. No further information is available at this time."
Additionally, a publicist hired by Fox, who had been constantly working projects in the label's first six months, has been uncharacteristically quiet in more recent months.
Just fine despite the signs
Despite all those apparent signs, Feldstein and Bixler said the label has been humming along just fine, though at a lower profile. They noted strong sales and rentals at video, especially with The Ultimate Gift and Thr3e.
Bixler offered explanations for the other apparent warning signs—the lack of theatrical releases and the dead website. He said Fox Faith had planned to avoid holiday and summer theatrical releases so as not to compete with the parent company: "Big Fox had always said we need to get out of the way. They don't want us taking up theaters, so we knew we'd have no theatrical releases from May to September."
As for the website, "We've had a problem with it, and it went down for [a while]. But we weren't too concerned about it because we didn't have anything to announce that was pressing." He said he hopes the website is updated soon.
Feldstein said the future of the brand looks good: "Fox Faith has been primarily aimed at the Christian marketplace here in the States, and that's its continued focus. We've got fourteen films in various stages of production that are coming up, some based on popular authors, others of a gospel theme. We've got a very healthy lineup of product coming."
One film just starting production is Jake's Run, to be made by Michael Landon Jr. and Brian Bird's Believe Pictures studio (The Last Sin Eater, Sarah Cain). The film is based on the true story of Jake Porter, a mentally challenge high school student who was allowed to run for a touchdown in a football game, a heartwarming tale that made the news in 2002. Another film in production is Like Dandelion Dust, based on the book by Karen Kingsbury.
The next two films in the Love Comes Softly series, Love's Unending Legacy, hits video in December, while Love's Unfolding Dream will release to video sometime in 2008.
The Final Inquiry, a made-for-TV movie in Italy (original title: L'Inchiesta), was one of those long listed as "coming soon" on the Fox Faith website, but Bixler says it will have a "small theatrical" release in January 2008, followed by video at Easter.
And Bixler announced that Fox Faith recently picked up the Angel Wars children's videos, with intent to produce episodes 4-6 and an eye to possibly doing a feature film in the future.
"We're alive and well," said Feldstein. "Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. We're the new Mark Twain."
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