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  • Originally published on
  • Friday, Nov. 20, 2015
Keeping The Faith At American Film Market

Financial success for faith-based films is hardly a revelation. But certainly punctuating their viability was War Room which in its second weekend of release topped box office returns with $12.6 million during Labor Day weekend. A Christian film from Sony’s TriStar and AFFIRM divisions, War Room was marketed toward a niche faith-based audience.  It cost $3.5 million to produce and grossed $27.9 million over its first two weeks. As of November 15, the film has pulled in more than $67 million.

During the American Film Market (AFM)--which wrapped last week in Santa Monica--a discussion session delved into the faith-based film market. And clearly it’s a market carrying lessons for mainstream filmmakers as reflected in observations from panelist Mike Medavoy, chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures whose filmography over the years includes producing Zodiac, Shutter Island, Black Swan (which earned him a Best Picture Oscar nomination in 2011), and the recently released The 33.

Medavoy related, “It’s not enough to find a story you like. You have to find something that most people would like. What do you have in common with others? What I really find interesting about what I do is learning about everything. The thing that drew me into the business was human interest. I really like people…I ask the same question as most people do in faith. Who am I? What am I doing here? If you’re a producer, that’s what you need to be asking yourself.”

He went on to affirm, “There is an audience for these movies and there’s a big audience. It’s not ‘how do I make a movie that everyone is going to want to see…but that this core audience will want to see? That’s the challenge…if the film is something that people will emotionally engage with…It’s not the thrill. The thrill is for the younger audience, but the older crowd is being underserved.”

Panelist Scott Glosserman, founder and CEO of theatrical on demand company Gathr Films,  said that in terms of having a  built-in core audience, the faith-based film is somewhat akin to the cause-based documentary which inherently has a passionate base of viewers emotionally engaged to the subject matter.

Still, mainstream films often have a faith component. Consider Medavoy’s The 33, which is the 321st movie in his career—and counting. This story of survival certainly reflects elements of faith and determination—on the part of the trapped miners, their families and the rescuers. Directed by Patricia Riggen, The 33 follows the extraordinary real-life survival story that captured the world’s attention in 2010—the collapse of the Copiajo gold and copper mine in Chile and the miraculous rescue of all 33 miners after 69 days of being trapped below the earth’s surface under an enormous boulder twice the size of the Empire State Building.

True believers
While there were big-ticket deals for high-profile films finalized at AFM, there were also assorted filmmakers looking to gain distribution deals for features that had less fanfare but proved worthwhile upon closer scrutiny. In these cases, the filmmakers themselves have their own brand of faith, knowing there’s an audience there for their content, and trying to find the right conduit to make that connection with viewers.

Consider Alan M. Blassberg who directed, co-produced and co-wrote the feature documentary Pink & Blue: Colors of Hereditary Cancer. His family devastated by cancer, Blassberg made the documentary as a personal passion project, crafting an emotional and informative journey through the lives of people who are dealing with genetic mutations and their related hereditary cancers.

But those with a family history of cancer can consider getting screened for these genetic mutations (known as BRCA 1 and BRCA2). If people have this in their genes, they can consider prophylactic surgery as a life-saving option.  One of Blassberg’s sisters died in her 40s of cancer without realizing she had the mutation. Another sister, armed with knowledge of BRCA1 and 2, got screened for the mutation and elected to have life-saving preventative surgery. This prophylactic surgery made headlines when Angelina Jolie Pitt had a double mastectomy and later had her ovaries removed to significantly reduce her chances of getting cancer. Jolie Pitt has a family history of caner; her mom died at the age of 56, after a 10-year battle with the disease.

Pink & Blue had limited theatrical runs in NY and L.A. in October to coincide with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and National Hereditary Breast & Ovarian Cancer Week. Blassberg was at AFM and reported that as a result he is close to finalizing a distribution deal for the documentary. Furthermore, he expects to gain exposure for Pink & Blue on the festival circuit.

New buyers, locales
More than 80 new buying companies attended AFM, with the largest growth coming from South Korea, China, Germany and India.

A total of some 1,600 buyers from more than 70 countries were on hand for AFM.

There were more than 400 films screened at AFM, spanning 30-plus languages.  These movies included 87 world premieres and 242 market premiers. Hundreds of projects were also unveiled for pre-sales by the 390-plus exhibiting countries from nearly 40 countries.

Also in the exhibitor mix were assorted film commissions, domestic and international, with news of incentives for the production community at large spanning features, TV, commercials and varied forms of content. A  prime example was the U.S. Virgin Islands which this year passed a substantive incentives package featuring up to a 17 percent transferable tax credit (a 10% credit for projects with 20-25% resident hires; a 15% credit for those with 25.1-30% local hires; and 17% for productions with 30.1% or more resident workers). The U.S. Virgin Islands additionally offers up to a 29 percent cash rebate (starting with a base 9% rebate, and an additional 10 percent for projects with a USVI promotion, and yet another 10 percent if the job is produced in St. Croix).

Steve Bornn, film development manager of the U.S. Virgin Islands Film Office, is hopeful the new incentives will officially take effect by the end of the year once final rules and regulations are published. In the interim, the film office is operating status quo with soft incentives available, meaning that currently being entertained are proposals for subsidies on individual projects.

The passage and upcoming formal implementation of a significant filming incentive program in the U.S. Virgin Islands has been a passion project pursuit of Bornn ever since he joined the film commission as development manager in 2007.

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