‘The New York Times’ Interviews Pastor Jamal Bryant, Rev. Roderick Dwayne Belin, DeVon Franklin, and More Members of the Faith Community About Secular Hollywood’s Quiet Courting of the Religious

Marshall Mitchell, left, and Corby Pons are partners in Wit PR, which pitches movies to churches. Credit Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times
Marshall Mitchell, left, and Corby Pons are partners in Wit PR, which pitches movies to churches. Credit Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

The Rev. Roderick Dwayne Belin, a senior A.M.E. Church leader, stood before a gathering of more than 1,000 pastors in a drafty Marriott ballroom in Naperville, Ill., this month and extolled the virtues of a Hollywood movie.

“Imagine this clip playing to your congregation, perhaps tied to a theological discussion about our sacred lives and our secular lives and how there is really no division,” he said, before showing the trailer for “Hidden Figures,” which 20th Century Fox will release in theaters nationwide on Jan. 6.

The film has no obvious religious message. Rather, it is a feel-good drama about unsung black heroines in the NASA space race of the 1960s. But Fox — working with a little-known firm called Wit PR, which pitches movies to churches — sought out Mr. Belin to help sell “Hidden Figures” as an aspirational story about women who have faith in themselves. He became a proponent after a visit to the movie’s set in Atlanta, where Wit PR invited seven influential pastors to watch filming and hang out with stars like Kevin Costner and Taraji P. Henson, who spoke of her own struggles to succeed in Hollywood.

“I came away really interested in using film to explore faith,” Mr. Belin said.

On the surface, Hollywood is a land of loose morals, where materialism rules, sex and drugs are celebrated on screen (and off), and power players can have a distant relationship with the truth. But movie studios and their partners have quietly — very quietly, sometimes to the degree of a black ops endeavor — been building deep connections to Christian filmgoers who dwell elsewhere on the spectrum of politics and social values. In doing so, they have tapped churches, military groups, right-leaning bloggers and, particularly, a fraternity of marketing specialists who cut their teeth on overtly religious movies but now put their influence behind mainstream works like “Frozen,” “The Conjuring,” “Sully” and “Hidden Figures.”

The marketers are writing bullet points for sermons, providing footage for television screens mounted in sanctuaries and proposing Sunday school lesson plans. In some cases, studios are even flying actors, costume designers and producers to megachurch discussion groups.

Hollywood’s awareness of its need to pay better attention to flyover-state audiences has grown even more urgent of late, as ultraliberal movie executives, shocked to see a celebrity-encircled Hillary Clinton lose the presidential election to Donald J. Trump, have realized the degree to which they are out of touch with a vast pool of Americans. Tens of millions of voters did not care what stars had to say in support of Mrs. Clinton.

Are those voters also ignoring the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep when they promote movies? Would they listen if it were a church leader telling them to buy a ticket instead?

Film companies can no longer afford to take any audience for granted. Despite a growing population, North America’s moviegoing has been more or less flat — not exactly what investors want to hear. Last year, 1.32 billion tickets were sold, up from the year before but down from the 10-year high of 1.42 billion in 2009, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. More troubling, cheaper and more convenient in-home entertainment options are threatening the grip that multiplexes have long had on young adults; the number of frequent moviegoers ages 12 to 24 has fallen for three consecutive years.

Hollywood is under pressure to reverse that trend. Churches may seem like an unusual path toward young people, but 41 percent of millennials engage in some form of daily prayer, according to a 2010 Pew Research paper. To reach them, many ministers have built vast social media networks. The Rev. Jamal H. Bryant, a megachurch pastor in Baltimore, has 250,000 followers on Twitter. (His church also has a smartphone app.)

Studios used to sell movies by bombarding television networks with advertising on the eve of release. That tactic is still used for summer blockbusters, but it is expensive and increasingly ineffective in the DVR age. As a result, studios are aggressively trying to plumb niche markets that can be reached through word of mouth.

“Someone like Jamal Bryant, because he has such a prodigious network online, becomes a pipeline to other youth pastors,” said the Rev. Marshall Mitchell, a pastor in Jenkintown, Pa., and a founder of Wit PR.

In the coming weeks, Mr. Bryant plans to bring up to 300 parishioners to a Wit PR-organized screening of “Hidden Figures” in Northwest Baltimore. Afterward, Mr. Bryant intends to lead a discussion connecting the plot to a theological message.

“Most studios, to be honest, have no idea how to market to us,” Mr. Bryant said. “They’re still doing the Sammy Davis Jr. tap dance: ‘Look at me! Aren’t you impressed?’ Well, no, not really. But if you bring us into the tent, we are often excited to spread the word.”

People of faith and their sheer numbers — by some estimates, the United States has roughly 90 million evangelicals — are not a new discovery in Hollywood. Moviedom’s leading Christian consultancy, Grace Hill Media, was founded in 2000 by a former publicist for Warner Bros. Studios woke up to the power of the market in 2004, when Mel Gibson’s $30 million “The Passion of the Christ” came out of nowhere to sell $612 million in tickets worldwide. Sony Pictures has for years found success with low-budget religious films like “Soul Surfer” and “Miracles From Heaven.”

What is new is the aggression and sophistication.

Even in the wake of several flops — among them this summer’s “Ben-Hur,” which cost at least $150 million to make and market and collected $94 million — studios are working on at least a dozen movies in this arena, including “The Star,” an animated film about the animal heroes of the first Christmas. Last month, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer announced the introduction of Light TV, a faith and family broadcast network. Other media companies are considering the creation of faith-based streaming services, essentially Netflix for the pious.

At the same time, consultants are refining their efforts. Kevin Goetz, the chief executive of the movie research company Screen Engine/ASI, recently initiated a proprietary Faith Tracker that monitors moviegoing in a sample of 800 people — evangelical, traditional Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon and those whom he calls “spiritual but not necessarily religious.” It’s a tool designed to help studios understand whether their faith-based advertising and publicity efforts are connecting with the target audience before a film’s release.

An even bolder Screen Engine/ASI initiative involves a 1,000-member “influencer” service made up of movie-attuned pastors. Some of those will be invited to view unfinished films online, to offer feedback that may help filmmakers shape them and marketers sell them.

And film studios, desperate to assemble large crowds on opening weekends, have newly realized that religious Americans, if approached on their own terms, can be captured for movies that would, at first glance, seem to be an unusual fit.

Mr. Mitchell and his Wit PR partner, Corby Pons, have recently been hired to use their clergy connections to tout “The Magnificent Seven,” a Sony remake of the classic Western; “Sully,” the Warner Bros. hit about the 2009 emergency landing of a US Airways jet in the Hudson River; and “Rules Don’t Apply,” a period romance directed by Warren Beatty.

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SOURCE: The New York Times – Brooks Barnes