The conventional Hollywood wisdom has long held that religious and family-friendly movies are not high earners. But this wisdom is beginning to wane in the face of recent theater trends. The five top-grossing movies so far this year are rated either PG or PG-13, and all of them have surpassed the $100 million mark. Two of last year's top five, Shrek 2 and The Incredibles, were PG-rated animated films.
This kind of success is causing executives to rethink their standard fare. Family-friendly movies, especially animated ones, have brought people to the movies who haven't gone in years. And they will be more inclined to return for more – provided there is something for them to see.
In the past, religion writers have pointed the movie industry to the link between ratings and profits. And a study released this week by the Dove Foundation came to some important conclusions confirming this relationship.
Since 2000, R-rated movie production has dropped by 12 percent a year, while G-rated film production is up by 38 percent over the same period. This reflects the market reaction to the fact that between 2000 and 2003, the average profit for an R-rated film was a comparatively paltry $17 million when contrasted to the average G movie, which brought in a $92 million profit.
One comes away from the Dove report with a sense that the movie industry is beginning to recognize a profit opportunity in producing more morally robust movies.
In 1999, following an initial Dove study, Joe Roth of Disney made a pledge to change the ratio of adult action films to family-friendly films from 4:1 to 1:1. And the company is quite close to keeping that promise, as 48 percent of their releases since 2000 are rated either G or PG.
One of the much-anticipated Disney releases for later this year is the first installment of C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lewis was one of the most popular Christian theologians and apologists of the twentieth century, and his fiction books are imbued with a deep sense of Christian morality.
This kind of religiously informed storytelling, along with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, has the potential not only to be enormously profitable but also to be morally salutary.
Disney stands in a long line of entrepreneurs and capitalists who had a unique insight, gained in part from looking at the surprising success of wholesome fare and a certain intuition, and then profited from it.
Just as Hollywood has traditionally been reluctant to back films that tap into the religious interests of the buying public, organized Christian denominations have been too suspicious of the film industry.
The Religious Right has decried Hollywood for many years without understanding the core motivation behind film making, which is not to corrupt but to make movies people want to see. This drive is neither moral nor immoral: It only means that the film market is a moral blank slate.
Today, the message has been sent. Handsome profits draw new producers and new products into the field. This is the result one would expect whether a movie promotes God or the devil. And it is a sad commentary that many businesses would serve either depending on where the profits are.
For now, it seems that the smart money is with faith and family, which is all to the good. May we appreciate the moment and all that it will do to channel the tremendous talents of Hollywood toward the kind treatment of religion.
The real challenge comes when the profits dry up and capitalists again face the temptation to profit from people's desire to flee the good. The market is a remarkable institution that serves society precisely what it wants. Love or hate what Disney and others have done, the success of family films reflects the values that animate our culture.