Fox Pursues the Flock

Several years of dwindling box-office receipts and sluggish DVD sales have sent one major Hollywood studio mining for movie gold among the faithful.

20th Century Fox has unveiled a new division -- FoxFaith -- created to acquire and distribute "morally-driven, family friendly programming," according to its Web site, which explains, "to be part of FoxFaith, a movie has to have overt Christian content or be derived from the work of a Christian author."

Steve Feldstein, senior vice president of marketing at Fox Home Video, says the studio is not looking to save souls.

"All of this programming is entertainment first. We're not in the business of proselytizing or preaching."

But business salvation is a motivating factor, says media consultant Phil Cooke, whose clients include some of the largest and most successful Christian ministries in the country.

"Seventy million people refer to themselves as evangelical Christians out there," Cooke said.

"Fox is realizing there is a vast market out there that a great deal of their product has not been reaching, and that's the reason they are going to focus on that group."

A poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Life found that 82 percent of Americans identified themselves as Christian, though just a quarter characterized themselves as "evangelical."

FoxFaith plans to release 12 small-budget films a year, costing on average $6 million each to produce.

That's roughly 10 percent of the average price of most projects.

The films will get a $5 million marketing budget for a very focused campaign aimed right at the target audience.

Most of the new label's projects will be films bought from independent production companies, and most of those will go straight to DVD.

FoxFaith will also have a handful of theatrical releases a year.

"Love's Abiding Joy" is the first one and hits a limited number of theaters on Oct. 6.

The film -- which cost $2 million to make -- is adapted from a work by best-selling Christian novelist Janette Oke and is the fourth installment in a series.

The story chronicles the experiences of a faithful family that has made a treacherous journey to settle in the rugged West.

Filmmaker and playwright Tyler Perry discovered the payoff of "niche marketing."

"Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Medea's Family Reunion" cost him less than $6 million each to make.

But the pair of inspirational -- and humorous -- stories of a family matriarch brought in more than $60 million, leading Business Week magazine to give Perry a ROI (Return on Investment) Award.

"There is a whole wide swath of the population that wants to see good, entertaining stories but that don't have to have unnecessary violence or sex or bad language," said filmmaker Ralph Winter.

Winter, the successful producer of such movies as "X-Men: The Last Stand," "X-Men," Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes," and the "Star Trek" films, is a Christian and has had a long and productive relationship with 20th Century Fox.

He is currently filming "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" and has produced two films for Fox based on the thriller novels of Christian writer Frank Peretti.

Winter believes the extraordinary success of Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" in 2004 opened a lot of eyes in Hollywood.

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