With "Heaven Is for Real" bringing in $21.5 million over the Easter weekend, Hollywood has its fourth faith-based box office hit this year.
The movie, starring Greg Kinnear, brought in enough for a third-place finish to "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which pulled $26.6 million in its third weekend in theaters, and "Rio 2," which took in an estimated $22.5 million.
"Heaven Is for Real" was made on a budget of $12 million, a fraction of the money spent on the top-two grossing films.
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Movies with religious themes have been popular this year, with "Noah," "Son of God" and "God's Not Dead" all making it into the domestic top 20 along with "Heaven Is for Real," The Washington Post reported.
Ridley Scott’s "Exodus: Gods and Kings," set for release in December, is among the faith-based films continuing the current wave.
Studios are able to sell large blocks of tickets to church groups, helping boost opening weekends, which then generate strong word of mouth, The Times reported. The strategy works especially well for faith-based or ideological films with an existing base of support.
"Heaven Is for Real" is also based on a best-selling nonfiction Christian book about a 4-year-old boy who said he visited heaven and met relatives and Jesus while he was having emergency appendectomy surgery.
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Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" is loosely based on the Genesis story, while "Son of God" tells the story of Jesus. It was produced by husband-wife team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. "God's Not Dead" is an original screenplay about a college student who must defend his faith against an atheist professor, though critics have said it is based on various urban legends passed through email and social media.
"Exodus: Gods and Kings" stars Christian Bale as Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land.
Burnett told Newsmax
in January that he believes "Son of God" will be able to reach people with the message of Jesus throughout the world though smartphones and may rival the 1979 film "Jesus," which was produced by Campus Crusade for Christ and shown to audiences around the world in their own languages.
"People in developing countries are getting telephones before they're getting televisions. And they can watch this, in the decades to come, on their phone," Burnett said. "The Jesus movie is 1979, this is 2014. Young people have moved with the times."
"This audience has long felt left out by Hollywood and it certainly looks like this isn't the case anymore," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior market analyst of box office tracking firm Rentrak, in an email to Reuters. "The numbers will encourage studios to make more of these types of films."
Studios have been searching for more faith-based films since Mel Gibson's 2004 "The Passion of the Christ," which tallied $611.9 million in worldwide ticket sales and was made on a modest $30 million budget, according to Box Office Mojo.
In the last five years alone, Hollywood has made 26 movies that the site classifies as "Christian" films, including three based on "The Chronicles of Narnia" fantasy novels by C.S. Lewis that literary academics say adopted several Christian themes.
"There's a core audience and they're very interested in seeing films with a faith-based center," said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribute for Sony Pictures Entertainment, whose TriStar Pictures unit distributed "Heaven Is for Real."
"The one main ingredient most have is that they are somewhat inspirational in nature," said Bruer. "People feel like they get something out of it."
Not all get great reviews. "Heaven is for Real" got a positive "fresh" rating from only 31 of 59 reviewers, according to the site Rotten Tomatoes.
But some of the films can have a built-in marketing vehicle, according to David A. R. White, whose company Pure Flix produced the film "God's Not Dead."
White told Entertainment Weekly that Pure Flix waged an aggressive grass-roots campaign that included screening the film for 8,000 pastors prior to its opening.
"We have a lot of relationships to the gatekeepers who can rally their people to go to the movie theater," White told the magazine. He added of the American audience, "160 million plus people call themselves Christians. They go to church once a month, at least. That's a lot of people."
Reuters contributed to this report.
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