A church-based marketing campaign--the kind that usually rallies protesters against the evils of Hollywood--helped make the independent Christian film "The Omega Code" one of the nation's top-grossing movies this week.
The film opened in only 300 theaters last weekend but still grossed about $2.5 million, earning more money per screen than "Fight Club," the weekend's top-grossing movie, which took in $11 million from nearly 2,000 theaters.
"The Omega Code" cost $7.2 million to make and was financed by Costa Mesa-based Trinity Broadcasting Network, the nation's largest Christian broadcaster. It was distributed through Providence Entertainment, a year-old Sherman Oaks company founded by Norm Miller, chairman of Interstate Battery System of America in Dallas.
The movie reached the 10th spot on the national list of top-grossing films but placed fifth in Orange County, according to Exhibitor Relations, the box-office tracking firm.
While religious themes in movies are not new--"The Ten Commandments" remains a classic--overtly religious pictures historically have not drawn well. The unexpected success of "The Omega Code" caught producer Matthew Crouch by surprise.
Crouch, son of TBN co-founder Paul Crouch Sr., likened the strong showing to "lightning striking."
"This project has kind of gotten a life of its own," Crouch said.
Viewer support continued during the week, averaging about $500 per screen through Wednesday, according to AC Nielsen EDI.
"The weekday [draw] has been comparable with the other pictures, so it isn't just the weekend," said Philip Garfinkle, a Nielsen senior vice president.
The film will need another week or two of strong results to assure that it will be a financial success. Still, the movie's weekend box office performance surprised even some industry veterans.
"I was just like, 'What the hell is this?' " said Eamonn Bowles, president of distribution for the Shooting Gallery, based in Manhattan. "But when I heard what the film was about I wasn't surprised at all that it did the business it did."
Bowles helped market "The Apostle," Robert Duvall's 1997 film about the redemption of an evangelical minister. Duvall, whose performance earned him an Oscar nomination, made appearances on Christian talk shows and invited ministers to view the film prior to its release, Bowles said.
'Huge Market and No Films for It'
That critically acclaimed movie began weakly but went on to gross $20 million, performing best in Middle America and drawing a large Christian audience despite its unflinching portrayals. That success, Bowles said, indicates the size of what he believes is an untapped devout Christian market.
"It's a huge market and there are no films for it," Bowles said. "There are so few films that treat evangelical Christians with any measure of respect."
"This is a very respectable opening," said Jimmy Daddabbo, a partner in Owasco, a Los Angeles-based feature film production company. "What it shows is that over and over again, distributors focus on movies like a 'Star Wars'--the fast food of the movie business--and they miss the gourmet market. Sometimes those niches aren't so tiny."
Daddabbo said films like "Waiting to Exhale" have shown that sections of the population rarely portrayed in mainstream films--in that case, African American women--will flock to the theaters when they can identify with a movie.
"I don't think it even has to be a particularly strong movie," Daddabbo said. "They are starving--whether African American women or Christians. What saddens me is when a film like that succeeds, it seems to get chalked up as a fluke instead of being seen as a trend."
Yet some in the industry question whether isolated successes can translate into a larger trend by expanding beyond the obvious market.
At the Edwards Cinema in the Westminster Mall, assistant manager Diana Brown said moviegoers buying tickets for "The Omega Code" said they rarely go to the movies.
"A lot of Christian people who have come said they thought this film would be worth seeing," Brown said.
The movie, which stars Michael York and Casper Van Dien, is a modern-day retelling of the biblical book of Revelation, which some Christians believe prophesies the end of time. In the movie, a Torah scholar discovers a hidden code that unlocks the secrets of the end of the world and becomes the focus of an epic struggle between good and evil.
The movie has been lightly reviewed. One Web site devoted to mostly anonymous reviews by film buffs ranged from raves to rants, calling the movie everything from "riveting" to "absolutely horrid . . . a Book of Revelations for stupid people."
One negative review in The Times questioned what the reviewer perceived to be an anti-Catholic bias in the film. Crouch countered that the film follows the biblical book of Revelation, which many believe refers to the rise of the antichrist within a Rome-based church.
"It would have been a little weird not to shoot in Rome," he said. "We weren't picking on the Catholic Church."