- - Tuesday, March 20, 2018

In an age when superheroes and antiheroes rule the box office, a small film depicting a Christian songwriter’s relationship with his abusive father has surprised Hollywood with its third-highest take in ticket sales.

And it’s all about a song.

“I Can Only Imagine” scored $17 million over the weekend, tapping an often underserved audience that has flocked in recent years to other Christian-themed movies 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’ve tapped into,” said “Imagine” co-director Jon Erwin, whose film lacks a single curse word. “It matches the song, that same feeling of hope and encouragement.”

The $7 million, PG-rated movie tells the story behind the most-played Christian song to date: “I Can Only Imagine,” the 2001 triple-platinum tune by the group MercyMe.

Only the superhero juggernaut “Black Panther,” which made $26.7 million, and the reboot of the video-game-based adventure “Tomb Raider,” which took in $23.6 million, had bigger box office takes this weekend than “I Can Only Imagine.”

What’s more, “Imagine” bested 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 the widely hailed gay coming-of-age tale “Love, Simon.”

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

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

The film shows the power of redemption in its depiction of the fractured familial bond and the father’s ability to find faith before dying 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 is the phenomenon of this song?’” said Mr. Erwin, who directed “Imagine” with his brother and frequent collaborator, Andrew Erwin.

Mr. Millard’s answer? “It’s a rush 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 part of its box office glory, said Mark Joseph, a producer of such films as “The Vessel” and “Max Rose.”

Critics, who often dismiss faith-based products, gave “Imagine” an impressive 67 percent “fresh” rating at the film review aggregator website RottenTomatoes.com.

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

More important, Mr. Quaid’s presence — which captured audiences in movies such as “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Frequency” and “Any Given Sunday” — resonated with red state America, he said.

“If you’re making a film for the American audience, focus on who the heartland loves. It’s often different from foreign calculations,” Mr. Joseph said. “Dennis Quaid is a superstar in the heartland.”

Mr. Quaid brings “residual good will” to the film and has aggressively promoted the project, Mr. Joseph said.

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

“It’s easy to forget ‘I Can Only Imagine’ is the biggest-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 tune to go triple-platinum.

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

“I Can Only Imagine,” taken in that context, “is less of an outlier than it seems,” he said.

The story’s core appeal made it easier sell to the masses, he said. “It kind of has this underdog, ‘Rocky’ feel to it.”

Mr. Erwin says his “Rocky” story didn’t happen overnight. The “Imagine” team screened the film repeatedly to generate word of mouth in cities as far-flung as Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Williston, North Dakota.

Other screenings were more personalized.

Pastors of megachurches are the “gatekeepers,” the voices that can help shape a movie’s success, Mr. Erwin said. Ten months of cultivating audience praise eventually paid off, much to the shock of some Hollywood insiders. Mr. Erwin said some movie executives told him there wasn’t an audience for his film.

The filmmaker had faith they were wrong.

Looking back, Mr. Erwin said, his team tried to combine two distinct groups of Christian audiences. One is older, hungry for a faith-friendly message but wary of PG-13 or R-rated content. The other is a younger crowd eager to be entertained and engage pop culture on its own terms.

Mr. Erwin’s film will reach a larger audience this weekend as its distribution expands to roughly 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 the Christ,’” he said. “We’ve only begun to see the potential of these films.”

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