“Jesus Revolution” and “The Chosen” are not just Christian dramas but part of a revolution in faith entertainment. The former — a feel-good movie about hippies who returned to Christ during the 1970s, starring former “Cheers” and “Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer — has grossed more than $52 million since its debut a few weeks ago, making it the most successful film released by studio heavyweight Lionsgate since 2019.
But the instructive parable may be its predecessor. Since its release in 2017, television series “The Chosen,” portraying a charismatic Jesus and his youthful disciples, showed it didn’t need Tinseltown’s blessing. Through crowdfunding, its producers have raised millions of dollars from thousands of fans, and the show is now in its third season.
The show has been breaking viewership records, screening in theaters and on streaming platforms. According to its producers, “The Chosen” has recorded more than 450 million views worldwide, including on its app. The show is touted as “the largest fan-supported entertainment project of all time” by the Religion News Service.
Over Easter weekend, Angel Studios, which helped launch “The Chosen,” released “His Only Son” in theaters. Calling it the “first-ever film to crowdsource its theatrical release,” the studio said it raised $1.235 million in February from 2,000 investors, all in under 100 hours, just to finance its distribution. An animated film currently in production in partnership with Angel Studios, “David,” has raised almost $51 million as of this article for its full production.
A parallel Christian entertainment industry — movies, music, books, television, and radio shows created for and by Christians — has existed alongside the mainstream for decades, but until now, Christian media generally has operated under the radar. Yet a 2020 study conducted by National Research Group (NRG) identifies a target audience of 41 million people aged 16 and over, with an additional 18 million who could be reached “given the right marketing.”
More recently, two companies in particular, Angel and Wedgwood Circle, have found innovative ways to create content that connects with audiences while making money.
“Obviously in the last 15 years, a ton has changed,” said Terence Berry, COO of Wedgwood Circle, a nonprofit that connects investors and creators to develop projects informed by their Christian faith. “We’ll call it the ‘faith market,’ or sometimes it’s ‘faith adjacent,’ is having success out there. It’s largely been on its own, so if we’re talking about film, television, streaming, it’s largely been outside of the Hollywood system.”
“I think there is obviously a sort of distaste or resistance among the big Hollywood content producers when it comes to Christian content,” said Wall Street Journal film critic Kyle Smith, via email. “There is a major market for Biblical stories ‒ we saw that back when Passion of the Christ sold $600 million in tickets and yet there was no rush in Hollywood to do anything similar. But this creates an opportunity for independent companies to produce movies and TV shows for an underserved audience.”
The California-based Come and See Foundation now funds the production costs for “The Chosen,” as well as the translation and distribution to enable the show to be available worldwide, through tax-deductible donations.
“I just donated for the first (not the last) time today,” wrote Instagram user Kayla on a Dec. 28, 2022, post by “The Chosen” showrunner Dallas Jenkins. “My sister passed away this year, at 27. Right now, she is experiencing the real Jesus. I can’t even imagine how amazing that experience is. However, I believe that this show helps people on earth have a small glimpse of that. It feels SO GOOD to give back to something that has been such an encouragement in my own life.”
Angel Studios also offers more traditional crowdfunding through its “Pay It Forward” system, in which donors receive no financial return but can access different levels of perks or benefits, and see how many people their donation will help to access episodes. “We had only done that on the streaming side,” said Jeffrey Harmon, an Angel co-founder. With “His Only Son,” the studio transferred the mechanism to theatrical releases, enabling audiences to purchase tickets for others to see the film.
Will Angel Studios and “The Chosen” spawn imitators? “My guess is there’s probably room for a few of them to survive,” Berry said. But what he calls “the big question” is whether they will cater specifically to an underserved audience of convinced Christians.
The NRG study said that only 1 in 3 members of the target audience for the faith-based market identifies as Christian, and notably, “His Only Son,” about Abraham’s last-minute reprieve from a divine mandate to sacrifice his son, is a story that appears in both the Christian and Jewish Bibles, and in a different form in the Quran.
While big studios looking to increase audiences and revenue in the streaming era may not decide to flood the zone with faith-based content, Angel Studios and Wedgwood Circle may nevertheless have something to teach them.
This article was adapted from a RealClearInvestigations article published May 3.