How a Faith-Based Strategy Pushed 'Blind Side' to No. 1 at Box Office

Grace Hill's Jonathan Bock Tells M&V Why More Brands Should Work With the 'Niche' Market of the Faithful

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Not just any movie can unseat "New Moon" in its third weekend at the box office. So when "The Blind Side," also in its third weekend, usurped the tween vampire blockbuster on Sunday by grossing $20.4 million to the "Twilight" sequel's $15.7 million, more than a few eyebrows in Hollywood were raised.

Warner Bros. production partners Alcon Entertainment tapped Grace Hill Media to connect 'The Blind Side's' message with its network of Christian media outlets.
Warner Bros. production partners Alcon Entertainment tapped Grace Hill Media to connect 'The Blind Side's' message with its network of Christian media outlets. Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment
But then again, most movies don't have the unexpectedly foolproof movie-marketing formula of Sandra Bullock, a true sports story and movie-going Christians.

If that latter nugget of news was in your blind side, you're not alone. Warner Bros. and the movie's production partners at Alcon Entertainment have been quietly reaching out to the Christian community in a big way through their work with Grace Hill Media, a movie-marketing firm geared toward the churchgoing crowd.

"When you open on Nov. 20 and you're opening against the sequel to 'Twilight,' and you know that the 'Twilight' opening weekend did $69 million and 'New Moon' should do better, one of the things that crosses your mind is, 'Who isn't going to go to "Twilight"?'" said Richard Ingber, president of worldwide marketing at Alcon Entertainment. "I don't know that much about the 'New Moon' audience, but I would imagine there's a lot of faith-based people not into 'New Moon' and vampires who might be into 'The Blind Side.'"

Enter Grace Hill Media. Led by Jonathan Bock, a Warner Bros. publicity veteran who worked on Christian-friendly films such as "The Green Mile" and "My Dog Skip," the company has helped market some 285 movies to the Christian circuit since 2000 through its database of 155,000 ministry professionals and more than 1 million consumers. When a movie with religious or spiritual themes is about to hit the marketplace, studios often tap Grace Hill to connect the film's message with its network of Christian media outlets or its highly valuable online community of ministry professionals who use relevant clips from new movies to give a pop-culture focus to their video-enabled Sunday sermons.

In the case of "The Blind Side," more than 20,000 churches have downloaded clips about the film's real-life story of a homeless African-American youth, Michael Oher (played by Quinton Aaron), who was adopted by a Tennessee mother, Leigh Anne Tuohy (Ms. Bullock), and played high-school football in Memphis before he was eventually picked to play for the NFL by the Baltimore Ravens. Couple those downloads with an average congregation size of 400 people, and Warner Bros. and Alcon got exposure to 8 million of the people most likely to see their movie.

Reaching the fathers and sons of those households, as well as moms, would also explain why "The Blind Side's" audience has been a lot more balanced than most industry insiders predicted for a film starring Ms. Bullock, whose work tends to skew heavily female (as does the "Twilight" saga, for that matter). Of the movie's opening-weekend attendees, 41% were male, which helped the film surpass the "Rocky" franchise and "The Longest Yard" remake as the highest-grossing debut for a sports movie.

Madison & Vine caught up with Grace Hill's Mr. Bock, a lifelong Presbyterian who attends the Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, on the eve of the film's third blockbuster weekend to talk about the current size of the church-going crowd, the definition of the modern Christian and what cues other marketers can take from "The Blind Side's" unconventional success.

M&V: You've been in the movie-marketing business among the church market for a decade now. How do you quantify that audience's relative size for studios these days?

Mr. Bock: [On] any given weekend, you're looking at about 43% of the country in church, while those who are showing up once a month is basically two-thirds. And if you're talking to two-thirds of the country, you're going to get a pretty huge spectrum of people and the kind of movies they like.

So I look at it like this: If you take it out of religion and look strictly at frequency ... if you attend one baseball game a month, or the number of people who go to Red Lobster once a month, they would consider you a regular. That's the kind of the number we like. If your life is in such a place where at least once a month [you're] getting yourself out of bed and heading to church, it clearly either does play a role in your life or you want the church to play a role in your life.

M&V: So how do movies or other brands find a way into the church service itself? Short of inserting sponsored pamphlets in Bibles, there wouldn't appear to be many obvious or ethical ways to make that happen.

Mr. Bock: We're not buying advertising in church bulletins. I don't want to infringe on that sacred hour, but if a pastor feels comfortable using something from a movie, if it ties in with something he's doing in church, then that's terrific.

We do a lot of outreach efforts with pastors, youth pastors, priests -- people who would have an occasion or opportunity to speak to a few dozen or many thousands. Then we'll create advertising, publicity and word-of-mouth screening programs for them, and depending on the movie, we'll provide resource materials for ministers to use in their churches.

I don't know if you've seen a contemporary church service lately, but they're pretty big, modern places with lots of TV screens -- definitely not your grandfather's church with an organ. So if you're a pastor and you just paid $35,000 for a massive high-tech screen, you don't just want to screen out the lyrics to "Our God Is an Awesome God." In the last four years, websites have started cropping up specifically for pastors where they can go and download and look for clips they can use as sermon illustrations, instead of using something like some story they either made up or had about their own life.

So now, if they want to tell a story about hope they can use a clip from "The Shawshank Redemption" -- it's key-worded, meta-tagged, and they see these clips in a low-res version.

M&V: So because these downloads are self-selected by pastors, how do you ultimately measure what percentage of Christians are seeing a particular movie? Are there any exit polls that tell you that data?

Mr. Bock: There's only so many questions they can ask on that exit polling, and traditionally studios just don't ask religion questions because of a wide variety of reasons. It's hard to do in a question or even two questions because so many subsets of that exist. Then, of course, there's no data to compare it to. You can't compare "The Blind Side" to other sports movies in the past 15 years; it would end up being its own data. In grand total, I think studios have asked exit questions maybe three times in all those movies. They've got other things they want to get to.

M&V: Have you worked with any other brands besides studios?

Mr. Bock: We have not. It's not to say we wouldn't, it's just the studios have been much more open to this, frankly, than other companies. There's a fear factor, which is funny, because, crazy as it sounds, America is Christian. That's a very broad statement, but it's a huge swath of the country. You would actually think that people like American Airlines or Toyota would want to reach out to them.

M&V: That said, what's a key takeaway other marketers can learn from your success with "The Blind Side" and others?

Mr. Bock: Well, I consider it niche marketing, which is funny to say that it's a niche when you're talking about the size. But even if you're a specialist in sports marketing, reaching out to mostly men, that's still a niche. But like any sort of niche marketing, it really requires, to some degree, a familiarity with and respect of the audience you're trying to market to. And just like I can't imagine people involved in sports marketing don't like sports, you got to be able to talk that talk. If you don't, people see through that in two seconds.

The same thing is true here. You can't just buy your way in; it does require a bit of a learning process, and it's very relationship-based. It also just comes down to understanding who the audience is and what will work. I think people on the coasts tend to think of the religious community as very monolithic, that everybody's an Evangelical and waiting on the next commandment from Rush Limbaugh. Once you understand there's so much more, there is where the real success comes in.

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