‘I Can Only Imagine’ Review: A Christian Rock Biopic Shows Why Faith-Based Films Struggle to Convert Secular Audiences

IndieWire | 3/21/2018 | Staff
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Christian movies are ready to cross over. 14 years have passed since “The Passion of the Christ” became a national sensation, and while no one has managed to match the hysteria that greeted Mel Gibson’s New Testament snuff film, companies like Pure Flix and Mission Pictures International have cultivated a lucrative cottage industry of cinema for the Focus on the Family crowd. Over and over again, these religious offerings have surprised box office pundits and raked in blockbuster numbers, with everyone from Pat Robertson to Joel Osteen spreading the good word in an effort to close the gap between megachurches and multiplexes.

“Heaven Is for Real,” the inspirational story of a little boy who once died for a few minutes, managed to gross $93 million in these United States. “Fireproof,” in which Kirk Cameron plays a porn-addicted fireman, earned $33 million off a $500,000 budget. “God’s Not Dead,” a 2014 Kevin Sorbo vehicle about the persecution of Christians on America’s college campuses, pulled down more than twice that. And yet, despite the fact that these are some of the most profitable movies this side of “Deep Throat,” they’re still only preaching to the choir. Pure Flix and their ilk can practically turn water into wine, but that hasn’t been enough to buy Hollywood’s respect. This is still fringe entertainment.

Hellbent - Biopic - Author - Aughts - Rock

“I Can Only Imagine” is hellbent on trying to change that. A blunt-force biopic about the author of the aughts’ most popular Christian rock song, the latest from evangelical brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin (whose previous credits include the anti-choice abortion drama “October Baby”) grossed $17 million when it opened last weekend, averaging more than $10,000 per screen and besting studio heavyweights like “A Wrinkle in Time.” For comparison, “Call Me by Your Name” barely earned as much in its entire run.

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