“I Can Only Imagine,” Christian Film About Song MercyMe, Amazes Hollywood

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In an era when superheroes and anti-heroes dominate the box office, a short film depicting a Christian songwriter’s relationship with his abusive father surprised Hollywood with its third biggest ticket sale.

And it’s all about a song.

“I Can Only Imagine” grossed $ 17 million over the weekend, attracting an often underserved audience that has flocked in recent years to other Christian-themed films such as “God’s Not Dead” and “Heaven Is. for Real “.

“People just want to watch something with the whole family. That’s what we exploited, ”said“ Imagine ”co-director Jon Erwin, whose film lacks a single expletive. “It fits the song, that same feeling of hope and encouragement.”

The $ 7 million PG-rated film tells the story of the most-performed Christian song to date: “I Can Only Imagine,” the 2001 triple-platinum song by MercyMe.

Only the $ 26.7 million superhero juggernaut “Black Panther” and the $ 23.6 million video game-based adventure reboot “Tomb Raider” have recorded bigger box office gains this weekend than “I can only imagine.”

Additionally, “Imagine” overtook Disney’s big-budget adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s children’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time,” which stripped the 1962 fantasy adventure of its Christian themes, and coming of age widely praised by homosexuals “Love, Simon.

“A Wrinkle in Time” earned $ 16 million in its second week on 3,980 screens nationwide, and newcomer “Love, Simon” made nearly $ 12 million on 2,402 screens. “Imagine” only opened on 1,629 screens.

In his first film role, Broadway artist J. Michael Finley plays MercyMe lead singer-songwriter Bart Millard and veteran actor Dennis Quaid plays the scoundrel father, Arthur Wesley Millard Jr. who abused his only child and chased his wife away.

The film shows the power of redemption in its portrayal of the severed family bond and the father’s ability to find faith before he dies when Bart is 18.

Mr. Erwin, the co-director, connects the big opening weekend to conversations with the real Mr. Millard early in the creative process.

“I asked him, ‘What’s the phenomenon of this song?’ Said Mr. Erwin, who directed “Imagine” with his brother and frequent collaborator, Andrew Erwin.

Mr. Millard’s response? “It’s a burst of hope.”

The production team took it from there. “We just understood our audience and what they wanted,” Mr. Erwin said.

Credit the film’s high quality for some of its box office glory, said Mark Joseph, a producer of films such as “The Vessel” and “Max Rose”.

Critics, who often reject faith-based products, gave “Imagine” an impressive 67% “fresh” rating on the movie review aggregation website RottenTomatoes.com.

“It doesn’t have a lot of embarrassing things that some faith-based films do,” Mr. Joseph said of a genre that has evolved significantly from its raw micro-indie roots in a short period of time.

More importantly, the presence of Mr. Quaid – who captivated audiences in films such as “The Day After”, “Frequency” and “A Given Sunday” – resonated with Red State America. , did he declare.

“If you are making a film for American audiences, focus on those you love at heart. It’s often different from foreign calculations, ”said Joseph. “Dennis Quaid is a superstar in the heart of the country.”

Mr. Quaid brings “residual goodwill” to the film and has been aggressively promoting the project, Mr. Joseph said.

Adam Holz, who writes for Christian movie review site PluggedIn.com, said the song’s massive appeal did the heavy lifting.

“It’s easy to forget that ‘I Can Only Imagine’ is the best-selling Christian song of all time. A lot of your marketing work is done there, ”Mr. Holz said.

“I Can Only Imagine” is the only Christian song to be triple platinum.

Timing also played a role in the film’s good fortune. The weeks leading up to Easter are “the perfect place for Christian films,” Mr. Holz said, citing hits like “The Shack” from last year and “Miracles From Heaven” from 2016. “

“I can only imagine,” taken in this context, “is less aberrant than it looks,” he said.

The main attraction of the story made it easier to sell to the masses, he said. “He kind of has that underdog, a ‘Rocky’ feel.”

Mr. Erwin says his “Rocky” story did not happen overnight. The “Imagine” team screened the film several times to generate word of mouth in cities as far away as Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Williston, North Dakota.

Other projections were more personalized.

Pastors in mega-churches are the “gatekeepers,” the voices that can help shape a film’s success, Mr. Erwin said. Ten months of cultivating public praise has finally paid off, much to the shock of some Hollywood insiders. Mr Erwin said some film executives told him there was no audience for his film.

The filmmaker was convinced they were wrong.

Looking back, Erwin said, his team tried to combine two distinct groups of Christian audiences. One is older, hungry for a faith-abiding message but wary of content rated PG-13 or R. The other is a younger crowd keen to have fun and engage in pop culture according to its own terms.

Mr. Erwin’s film will reach a wider audience this weekend as its distribution expands to around 2,000 screens. He expressed optimism that the box office wave will continue.

“The last time you saw the raw power of a unified Christian church was with ‘The Passion of Christ’,” he said. “We are only beginning to see the potential of these films.”

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