Faith dealers

By Published on .

You could call them the God Squad.

They can mobilize millions of Christians, many of whom haven't stepped inside a multiplex in years, to go see Hollywood's latest. Because of their connections, and roots in both entertainment and the church, these tight-knit consultants are in increasing demand by marketers because they can steer the faithful to a project and, if they bring all their resources to bear, virtually ensure its financial success.

Among them are Paul Lauer, the architect for the Christian-based marketing around "The Passion of the Christ"; Jonathan Bock, founder of Los Angeles public-relations firm Grace Hill Media; and A. Larry Ross, whose Dallas company works with several major studios. On the fringes are filmmakers like Tyler Perry ("Diary of a Mad Black Woman"), Rob Hardy and Will Packer ("The Gospel"), who provide a direct link to the country's African-American ministers and churchgoers.

Ever since Mel Gibson's "Passion" made more than $370 million in the U.S. and turned attention to a newly conservative climate, the entertainment industry has become fervent in courting the Christian community.

"Before `The Passion,' Hollywood didn't take the faith community seriously as a potential revenue stream," said Mr. Lauer, president of Motive Entertainment. "Now the studios realize it's a hungry audience that they can target very cost effectively."

For a mainstream film, Hollywood marketers say they may earmark a small percentage of their overall budgets to targeting Christians, though they now consider the audience a key demographic. For movies with a message, they might focus solely on this audience.

"It's always been a desire to court faith and family groups," said Oren Aviv, Buena Vista Pictures' president-marketing. "It was unknown until `The Passion' that they are willing to come out in force to support a movie."

35 million served

At a time when 45% of Americans say they go to church weekly and 15 million identify themselves as evangelical Christian, marketers inside and outside Hollywood are asking the consultants for help. Book publishers, Web-site creators, music labels and artists, and even package-goods companies, are trying to reach the faith-and-family market. The consultants say they vet each project based on its content, deciding some pass muster and some don't. A recent call from a chewing-gum conglomerate had one consultant scratching his head, though he said he'd take a wait-and-see approach to the potential project.

In the film business, studios are looking for any relevant hook to position a movie, overtly religious or not, to the faith community. Sony's boutique label Screen Gems predictably targeted the church for "The Gospel," a $4 million movie that stunned Hollywood by landing in the Top 10 recently with $8 million at the box office and double the per-screen average of the No. 1 movie "Wallace & Gromit." Screen Gems also tapped into the faith community for "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," a modestly budgeted movie that has pulled in $72 million.

Studios have hired the consultants for everything from the sci-fi drama "Serenity" to Disney's inspired-by-a-true-story flick "The Greatest Game Ever Played."

Bob Waliszewski, a media specialist with faith group Focus on the Family, said he makes his own decisions about which movies to back, but counts on recommendations from people like Mr. Lauer and Mr. Bock. "Movie ratings don't accurately label the content, and the faith community is tired of being burned by that," Mr. Waliszewski said. "Jonathan and Paul are filters-they understand what we're looking for."

When they win him over, he spreads the word to millions of Christians through the Focus Web sites, magazines and newsletters, ministers and daily radio shows.

Mr. Lauer, a surfer and married father of five from Los Angeles, has been working with Hollywood for several years, drawing on his background in organizing teen-targeted live music events and publishing faith-based magazines. His splashiest campaign was the marketing around "The Passion," in which he pulled together about 15 companies to saturate the Christian marketplace with screenings, pre-release publicity and an urgent call to action.

He's now working with Disney and Walden Media on "The Chronicles of Narnia" and Warner Bros. on the upcoming DVD release of "Polar Express," a Web project and a book.

Values added

Mr. Bock, who declined an interview request, frequently works with Mr. Lauer, as he did on "The Passion." A former Warner Bros. employee, he formed Grace Hill Media five years ago to be a liaison between studios and the religious market. He's worked on such films as "A Walk to Remember," "Cinderella Man," "Lord of the Rings" and "Kingdom of Heaven," and he's part of the "Narnia" team.

A. Larry Ross, a former General Motors Corp. publicist and president of A. Larry Ross Communications, was a spokesman for Billy Graham for 25 years and works on what he calls "values-added" entertainment, including "The Passion," the "Veggie Tales" kids' series and two "Left Behind" films.

"The Gospel" producer Will Packer and writer/director Rob Hardy, through their Atlanta-based Rainforest Films, helped Screen Gems market through gospel radio shows, music festivals and adopt-a-theater programs where churches bought blocks of tickets at their neighborhood multiplexes.

"They're really in touch with this community," said Mark Weinstock, Screen Gems' senior VP-marketing. "They told us to make fans that people could use in church, instead of T-shirts, which shows how well they know that marketplace."

Executives at DreamWorks SKG have established relationships with the influential Christian Booksellers Association, the Heartland Film Festival, Fuller Theological Seminary and Christian journalists to get out the word for their family-friendly movies. The studio sometimes uses consultants like Mr. Ross, as it did for its animated "Prince of Egypt," because the Christian community's support can mean tremendous financial upside.

"The huge dream" is coming up with another "Passion," said Mike Vollman, marketing executive at DreamWorks. "More realistically, it could be `A Walk to Remember' or `The Gospel' that shows the religious community will respond when given product they want."

The studio is targeting Christians, among other demographics, for "Dreamer," an inspirational movie about a once-ailing racehorse that becomes a champ. Mr. Vollman screened the movie for Ted Baehr, who runs the Christian entertainment Web site "An amazing thing about people in this community is that they're so wired and connected," Mr. Vollman said. "Ted sent out 21/2 million e-mails" supporting the movie.

Hollywood's focus is understandable, with 85% of Americans identifying themselves as Christians, whose media habits often closely mirror those of non-Christians. Christians are only slightly less likely to report watching R-rated movies than non-Christians, but they are more likely to turn off a TV show they find objectionable, according to research firm The Barna Group.

45% of Americans say they go to church weekly

15 million Americans identify themselves as evangelical Christian

85% of Americans identify themselves as Christians

$370 million What Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" made in the U.S.

$8 million The opening-weekend box office take for "The Gospel," made for $4 million.

Source: The Barna Group, Box Office Mojo

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