TIMES SQUARE–– You could call it the summer blockbuster movie you've never heard of, but whose impact is enormous.
"War Room," directed by proven Christian-themed filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, has become the second highest-grossing film in North America, despite a small budget, minimal marketing and sometimes scathing reviews. It's a clear example of the reach of faith based films, and in the country's largest filmgoing market, New York, that reach is being strongly felt.
Its title seems more like a suspenseful thriller about geopolitical warfare, but the content is anything but. The movie's trailer has more scenes showing people praying or audio of a person's prayer than anything else. Most of the prayer comes from the grandmotherly character Miss Clara, played by Karen Abercrombie, who uses a walk-in closet in her home as her so-called war room, a place where she goes to be alone with the Lord, and pray for people, for their problems, for the world.
To some filmgoers, this may sound hokey. But to the filmmakers, it evokes the sound of cash registers ringing up higher and higher sales.
War Room was the country's second highest grossing film this past weekend, with $11.4 million in domestic receipts. That's about $1.8 million less than the number one film, "Straight Outta Compton."
It's an impressive showing, having beaten out other blockbusters like "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" and the widely promoted newcomer "No Escape." Far more impressive, however, is the fact that Straight Outta Compton, the number one film, played on 3,142 screens nationwide. War Room was seen on just 1,135 screens.
The biggest factor in the success of this movie about an upper middle class African-American couple who learn how prayer can save their marriage, was its ability to attract viewers. It did so despite a rather small $3.4 million budget, and virtual absence of mainstream marketing.
But filmgoers like Donnie Willis had been led to the movie through word of mouth in church or other religious groups. "It is an exceptional movie," said Willis, a self-described film buff and sometime movie reviewer who PIX11 encountered waiting outside a Times Square theater for the screening of another film, days after he'd seen War Room. "I recommend it to everyone. Everyone must see War Room. They will come out of that uplifted."
Gail Harry, who PIX11 encountered at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, said that she'd seen the trailer, and intended to see War Room because it reaffirmed her own beliefs. "We need to really have that time spent with God," she said, "where we just isolate ourselves to just one place by ourselves."
Both of those filmgoers are churchgoers as well, who are interested in the power of prayer. More than a million people like them proved over the past weekend that they're willing to spend their money to see this film.
However, one of the country's most prominent pastors said it's not just the loyal church flock seeking to watch War Room, even though they do make up the majority of the audience.
"There seems to be an appetite in America amongst people of faith," said Rev. A.R. Bernard in an interview, "but also people who don't necessarily subscribe to a particular faith tradition, but they want to experience that there's a possibility, at least, of something greater than themselves."
Rev. Bernard is the pastor of the Christian Cultural Center. With its 37,000 members, it clearly wields influence. So much so, that before the rest of the world saw the largest-grossing religious film in history, "Passion of the Christ," director Mel Gibson invited Bernard to be one of a half-dozen clergy who previewed the movie. Their opinions were sought afterward, and ended up influencing the film's release and marketing.
Bernard said that even though War Room's reviews have included such descriptions as "a mess," "uninteresting," "preachy," and “shot like a term-life insurance infomercial,” that doesn't matter.
"How much can we go by the critics, when the box office says people are hungry for this kind of entertainment, for this kind of experience?" asked Bernard.
Supporting his statement are things like information about the movie on the well regarded film website Rotten Tomatoes. There, only 29 percent of the critics liked War Room, but 91 percent of the audience liked it. That kind of disparity, as well as the financial success that comes with it, can't be ignored.
"I'm pleased," said Rev. Bernard, "that media that can be sometimes critical of the faith community is really taking the time and effort to look at what's happening spiritually and socially in our society."
He was referring to the news media, but his statement applies to entertainment media as well.
Since "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments" became major blockbusters in the 1950's, film studios have seen that faith based films can make big money at the box office. But War Room's massive profit shows that marquee names and state of the art production values aren't always necessary to create a hit movie.
That having been said, Hugh Jackman has already signed on to a movie project about the apostle Paul that's in development and is being produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.