Spring 2001, Vol. 4, No. 1

Spring 2001

Related Articles:
"Peanuts for Christ", Religion in the News, Summer 2000

"Epic Respectability", Religion in the News, Spring 1999

Other articles
in this issue:

From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does

Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return

Palestinians and Israelis:
Oh, Jerusalem!

Faith-Based Ambivalence

Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On

What Would Moses Do?:
Debt Relief in the Jubilee Year

Hide, Jesse, Hide

Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight

Aum Alone

The Voucher Circus

Puffing Exorcism


































































Hit Counter

Left Behind At the Box Office
by Tom Hambrick-Stowe

rapture.gif (397393 bytes)At the end of the last millennium, evangelical Christianity broke into mainstream American entertainment. In 1999, reported that Christian pop/rock stars like Charlotte Church and Amy Grant had made Christian music the fifth largest genre with gains of 11.5% in album sales compared to 6.2% for the music industry as a whole. And on network TV, CBS’s Touched By An Angel succeeded as prime-time entertainment, twice making the Nielsen top 20 shows in January 2001. In addition, the apocalyptic novel Left Behind (along with its brood of sequels) established itself on the New York Times bestseller list.

The only notable holdout was Hollywood, where movies with religious themes are legion, yet shrink from the kind of unambiguous calls for conversion that evangelicalism favors. But since the "Left Behind" series was up to 25 million units in sales and counting, it looked like a film version might breach this final mass cultural barrier.

Based on Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ novel, Left Behind: The Movie is centered on the biblical prophecy of the Rapture. It begins with star Kirk Cameron, the former Growing Pains heartthrob who plays "GNN" reporter Buck Williams, witnessing a Russian/Arab invasion of Israel. The invasion goes wrong as every fighter jet spontaneously blows up in a supernatural firestorm. Shortly thereafter, millions of people suddenly vanish and in his search for answers Buck learns about the prophesied Rapture. He realizes that he has been "left behind" and along with airline pilot Rayford Steele, his daughter Chloe, and Pastor Bruce Barnes, they must endure the Tribulation and battle against the antichrist (who, incidentally, heads up the United Nations).

As producer Peter Lalondes told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution’s Bob Longino in an October 31, 2000 article, Left Behind was intended to "demonstrate to Hollywood that a large market does exist for Christian films and make them recognize how profitable it would be to make more movies like this."

To accomplish so exalted a goal, The Movie’s production company designed a unique grass-roots marketing strategy that began with "pre-releasing" the video version of the movie in October before releasing it to the theaters in February. The idea was for hard-core fans of the book series to buy the video, tell their friends about it and join a program to sponsor showings in multiplexes around the country. With luck (and God’s grace), there would be sufficient buzz that movie-goers would show up en masse at the theaters and break box office records in February, a traditionally slow month for Hollywood.

The first part of this grass-roots campaign got off to a stunning start. "What recent release was the No. 1 selling action and adventure flick on for four straight weeks—from mid October through mid November?" asked the St. Petersburg Times November 21. "It was Left Behind: The Movie." New York Daily News Religion Editor Charles Bell reported January 22 that since its October 3 release, the film’s video version had sold more than 3 million copies—"more, incidentally, than The Green Mile or Toy Story 2."

Success was also achieved in Phase II—the enlisting of local churches and businesses to sponsor and co-finance the marketing and distribution of the movie in their market. Sponsors would send Cloud Ten a check for $3000 to get the movie into the theater as well as to pay for marketing. "Critics," wrote John Lippman in the February 1 Wall Street Journal, "see the church involvement as a ploy to push Left Behind: The Movie quickly onto the box-office charts, making it appear more popular than it otherwise would be." (As if other marketing plans don’t try to make movies more popular than they otherwise would be.)

In parts of the country where evangelicals are thick on the ground, the campaign appears to have had some success. For example, Allison Gunn’s Kindred Christian bookstore in Birmingham, Alabama invested $30,000 in the movie and as of February 1 had orders for over 8,000 tickets.

On the other hand, although (according to the February 11 Hartford Courant) 11 Hartford-area churches sponsored a theatrical showing of Left Behind: The Movie at Showcase Cinemas in East Hartford, the film managed to draw only 919 customers in its first week. When I saw it with a friend in week 2, the audience totaled four.

According to the web site, Left Behind grossed $2.15 million on 867 screens in its first week, putting it 17th on the national box office top-50 list. By week five it had fallen to 38th, showing on only 70 screens nationwide, with gross revenues of just $3.9 million. By comparison, the romantic comedy "Head Over Heels," also in its fifth week, trailed Left Behind at number 45 but had earned more than $10 million. The movie’s poor revenues suggest that it never got traction, even in regions where "Bible believers" abound.

Left Behind was a critical as well as a box-office flop. The view from the mainstream print, broadcast, and on-line media can be summed up in the headline on Lou Lumemick’s February 2 review in the New York Post: "Put This Drivel ‘Behind’ You." Lumenick went on to say that Left Behind, "which sounds like the title of the next Adam Sandler comedy, is scarcely worth renting, let alone spending $9.50 to see." Writing in the November 8 Houston Chronicle, religion writer Richard Vara called Left Behind "a punchless B movie."

There was worse. James Berardinelli, film reviewer for film, called it "Cheesy. Silly. Moronic. Dull. Plodding. Torturous," and concluded that the title described "exactly what’s going to happen to this movie at the box office." The most unforgiving review came from the New York Times’ Stephen Holden, who called the Buck Williams character the most "golly gee-whiz young journalist to appear since Jimmy Wilson stalked Superman."

Holden was the first of a number of reviewers to compare Left Behind unfavorably to Michael Tolkin’s 1991 film The Rapture, which at the time got mixed reviews from both the religious and the general press. "To see the same theme drawn out with visual daring and a genuine sense of awe," writes Holden, "try renting The Rapture." Desmond Ryan of the Knight Ridder News Service said, similarly, that Tolkin’s film "considered the same beliefs with infinitely more flair and imagination than the simplistic and sorry contrivances of Left Behind."

Not surprisingly, Left Behind found a more receptive response from evangelical reviewers. "[W]ithout a doubt, Left Behind is well worth your time," opined the online reviews for Christian Spotlight on the Movies ( "The acting and directing are top quality." Likewise the dean of evangelical movie reviewers, Ted Baehr, on his website gave Left Behind four stars, calling it "the best movie made so far in the apocalyptic genre and has been crafted with a very careful, deft touch."

Back in the October 25, 1991 MovieGuide, Baehr declared, "Christian films are boring because you make them to please the church party bosses." His assessment of Left Behind notwithstanding, the film looked like it was made to please the evangelical party bosses. It may sell millions of videos to the choir, but at least at this point in American culture, the public-at-large isn’t ready to buy in.

Related Articles:

"Peanuts for Christ", Religion in the News, Summer 2000

"Epic Respectability", Religion in the News, Spring 1999