Weekend Box Office: Americans Vote, Maher Loses

A culture war of sorts played out this weekend at the box office, and liberal comedian Bill Maher's in-your-face assault on religious faith lost.  Despite heavy promotion from a fawning media establishment, Maher's film Religulous came in a disappointing No. 10 in its opening weekend. 

One would expect that a “niche” film like Religulous couldn't compete head-to-head with a Disney release, and that's just what happened.  Disney's Beverly Hills Chihuahua cleaned up with a weekend box office gross of $29 million. 

But Religulous also lost out – soundly – to another niche film, Fireproof, whose message about saving a marriage by turning to God is the polar opposite of Maher's faith-bashing flick.  Fireproof, which debuted last weekend with $6.5 million in box office revenue, added another $4 million this weekend.  By contrast Religulous brought in only $3.5 million.  More people chose to spend their hard-earned money on the movie that affirms faith, even though Fireproof was in its second week.

Religulous also lost out to a second “niche” film released this weekend, American Carol.  That movie, a conservative-themed comedy that espouses pride in America while satirizing liberal movie maker Michael Moore, earned $3.8 million.

To give the devil his due, Religulous did well on a per-screen basis.  Maher's film only played on 502 screens and earned $6,972 per screen.  Fireproof played on 350 more screens, adding 14 theaters in its second weekend, and earned a per-screen average of $4,776.   But here's an interesting factoid about the power of little movies that promote faith, and the faithful that support them.  Last year's indy film Bella, the pro-life movie that opened on only 162 screens, earned a per screen average of $8,051.

The success of Fireproof is remarkable for many reasons.  As noted previously by CMI, the movie was made by Georgia's Sherwood Baptist Church for roughly $500,000.  While the star is former Growing Pains heart throb Kirk Cameron, the vast majority of the actors in the film are members of the church's congregation.  This is the same congregation that made the football-themed film Facing the Giants in 2006, which went on to gross $10 million.

The mainstream media are starting to take note.  CMI learned last week that ABC News had sent a camera crew to talk to the film's producers for a story about the movie-making church.  Dan Harris reported the story on the October 3 broadcast of World News with Charles Gibson. (A similar story appears online at ABCNews.com.)


CHARLES GIBSON: With the weekend here, a lot of the buzz at movie theaters right now is about a Christian-themed film that's making a big splash.  In this era of $200 million blockbusters, Fireproof, made on a budget of $500,000, earned $6.5 million in its first weekend, easily outdrawing big name, big budget films. ABC's Dan Harris reports on what's behind its success.

DAN HARRIS: This is a hit movie where the actors, including child star turned born-again Christian Kirk Cameron, were not paid. Where the sets were built by volunteers, and where the catering was done by Sunday school kids.

HARRIS: Fireproof was made by brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, who are pastors at the Sherwood Baptist Church in rural Albany, Georgia, that's where they got most of the volunteers for the movie, which is about a firefighter who turns around his failing marriage through faith.

FILM CLIP: God has given me a love for you that I have never had before.

ALEX KENDRICK, film director: Marriage has been attacked, watered down, redefined. And so we want to lift up a standard for marriage and say, hey, marriage should be given honor. And it's worth fighting for.

HARRIS: After the blockbuster Passion of the Christ in 2004, there was a mad dash in Hollywood to reach out to Christians, who are so often disgusted by Hollywood. So far, however, the big studios with their big bucks have not been able to succeed where the Kendricks have. For Fireproof, the filmmakers mounted a massive grassroots campaign, saturating Christian media. They also screened the movie for scores of influential Christians and got churches all over the country to buy tickets and give them away. They even organized baby-sitting brigades so that parents could get out and see the movie. But it's really the film's message that is attracting Christians.

UNDENTIFIED MAN: Sometimes that's a voice that's not really heard, generally.

An October 5 story in the New York Times by Julie Bloom is remarkably positive, providing a fair account of the movie's production even while acknowledging the dismissive tone of Times movie reviewer Neil Genzlinger.  Genzlinger wrote of the film's “positives” that it contained “that rarest of creatures on the big (or small) screen: characters of strong conservative Christian faith that don't sound crazy.” 

[Note to NYT movie reviewer: the reason the devout Christian characters don't sound crazy is because they weren't created by liberal Hollywood screenwriters seeking to caricature people of faith.]

The media are a little late in recognizing Fireproof and its interesting back story, especially compared to their pandering promotion of Bill Maher's Religulous.  Now that Fireproof has proven itself – and shocked Hollywood in the process – expect more Johnny-come-lately stories to appear in the liberal media.  And expect them to be reported with a head-scratching “I-can't-believe-this-is-successful” tone.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.