Forbes critic blames colleagues’ bewilderment on stubborn anti-religious bias
The new Christian film War Room raked in $11 million during its debut last weekend, coming in second place at the box office just behind hit movie-of-the-moment Straight Outta Compton, which pulled in only $13 million in its third weekend on U.S. screens.
War Room – which had a limited release of just over 1,000 screens nationwide, almost no advertising, and was produced for just over $3 million – easily beat out Zac Efron’s dance club drama We Are Your Friends and No Escape, a political thriller featuring Owen Wilson, both of which enjoyed wide releases and plenty of mainstream promotion. In fact, War Room made the most money per screen of any film on offer last weekend, averaging nearly $10,000 per screen, while Owen’s and Efron’s films earned only $3,335 per screen and $635 per screen, respectively … a record-breakingly poor performance, in Efron’s case.
Hollywood insiders reacted with surprise to War Room’s strong debut, but a critic for Forbes magazine says the industry should have known all along that it was a guaranteed hit, and that all producers and critics have to do is take off their anti-religious blinders in order to repeat the success of War Room, over and over again.
“Pretty much every box office report posted yesterday has somevariationonthenotion that War Room‘s strong performance was something of a surprise,” wrote Scott Mendelson in his piece for Forbes Monday. “In truth, the only surprise about the strong $11 million debut weekend of Alex Kendrick’s War Room is that anyone was shocked in the first place.”
War Room, the latest offering from Christian sibling duo Alex and Stephen Kendrick, focuses on a successful upper-middle class black couple whose lucrative jobs let them build an attractive public façade to cover up worsening problems in their relationship and spiritual lives. As the pair edge toward the brink of divorce and possible professional implosion, the wife meets a charismatic, prayerful older woman who convinces her that all the couple’s woes are nothing less than attacks by Satan himself. Spurred on by the old woman’s encouragement, the wife transforms a closet in her spacious McMansion into a “war room” – a room dedicated to prayer (which the film’s tagline reminds us is “a powerful weapon”). Sure enough, when the spiritual source of the ugliness in the couple’s lives is unearthed and attacked with prayer, things miraculously begin to change for the better.
War Room’s first-weekend haul was more than triple the cost of the film’s production, making it an instant moneymaker for parent company Sony Pictures. But even Sony execs acted surprised by the film’s success, with Rory Bruer, head of distribution for Sony, telling Fox News, “We knew that we were going to get a lot of love, we just didn’t expect quite this much love.”
Meanwhile, the critics acted nothing less than shocked.
“Christian drama War Room is doing far better than expected in its North American box office debut, all but tying with champ Straight Outta Compton,” the Hollywood Reporter reported breathlessly on Friday, as the weekend’s earliest numbers began rolling in.
“Th[is weekend’s] big surprise … was the over-performing faith-based drama War Room,” echoed a critic for Moviewebon Monday.
Variety admitted that the movie’s success “upended the expectations of box office prognosticators.”
But according to Mendelson, the Kendrick brothers’ established track record of nearly a half-dozen other solidly profitable films – all made on shoestring budgets for Christian audiences – should have tipped industry insiders off that
War Room was likely to be another underdog hit. What’s more, he says the industry’s refusal to pull their heads out of the sand when it comes to audiences that don’t fit the Hollywood ideal is going to cost them money in the long run, by depriving vast segments of would-be viewers of the kind of entertainment they want to purchase.
“Yeah sure, the whole ‘surprise’ narrative makes for good copy and easy headlines, but it’s harmful in the long run by continuing the myth that says that films not aimed at one specific demographic shouldn’t be expected to make money and/or shouldn’t be considered a wise investment,” Mendelson wrote. “The idea that a film like Zac Efron’s We Are Your Friends is the kind of film that is supposed to make money while a film like War Room is not guarantees that more We Are Your Friends get produced regardless of the financial realities.”
“Those pretending to be surprised for the sake of easy analysis are doing the industry a disservice,” Mendelson added. “Those actually surprised need to once again take a look at their presumptions. Because once again, the notion of what kind of movies make money in Hollywood is still a stronger motivational factor than what kinds of movies actually make money in Hollywood.”