January 3rd, 2013
02:42 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Editor
(CNN)—In spite of tepid reviews from some film critics, "Les Miserables" is booming at the box office, and that financial success can in part be traced to a group of its biggest boosters: Christians, particularly evangelicals whom NBC Universal went after with a microtargeted marketing strategy.
The story in "Les Miserables" is heavy with Christian themes of grace, mercy and redemption. The line everyone seems to remember is "to love another person is to see the face of God.”
NBC Universal looked to capitalize on those components and promoted the film to pastors, Christian radio hosts and influence-makers in the Christian community.
The latest film adaptation of the musical is raking in the cash. As of Wednesday, NBC Universal reported, it had pulled in $80.57 million in 2,814 theaters. After winning Christmas Day, the film finished third in the box office totals over the weekend, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, narrowly losing out to "The Hobbit" and "Django Unchained" despite being on significantly fewer screens.
“If you’re a Christian and you’re seeing this film, you can’t help but see these themes,” said Jonathan Bock, founder and president of Grace Hill Media, the firm hired for the targeted marketing campaign.
“We were targeting specifically people who had a bully pulpit,” Bock said. His company’s goal was to draw Christians who would “be impacted by it and then tell anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of people what they just saw.”
Screenings set up across the country in advance of the film’s release filled up fast, he said.
Bock’s firm has worked on marketing campaigns in the faith community for hundreds of television and film releases, and normally, the screening invite-to-attendee ratio is 4-to-1. “This movie, we booked at 1.4-to-1, and we had turn-aways in every single market. Almost everyone who signed up showed up for the movie,” he said.
“There’s a great deal of awareness about the movie itself, and the great thing is that the movie itself delivers,” added Bock, ever the marketer.
Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family was one of the groups that partnered with Grace Hill Media for a special screening. For the event, Focus on the Family brought in partners from across Colorado, adoption agencies, child welfare officials and church leaders.
“We’re trying to raise awareness for the needs of kids, particularly in the foster care system who don’t have any families. We love to come alongside them and welcome them home, and for that reason, we loved the movie,” said Kelly Rosati, vice president of community outreach for Focus on the Family. She oversees their adoption and orphan care initiative.
A movie like "Les Miserables," she said, “is able to engage the heart in a way straight facts and calls to action can never do.”
“I think that’s something the movie did in a beautiful way: It stirred the heart without ever having to directly issue a call to action,” she added.
Another coup for marketers was getting young evangelical leaders like the leaders of Catalyst, the hip conference for young evangelicals, out to see the film. Brad Lomenick, executive director of Catalyst, called it “Epic film. Powerful" on Twitter and suggested that Hugh Jackman’s performance was Oscar-worthy.
Mainstream movie critics have not been as glowing. The Los Angeles Times movie critic, Kenneth Turan, wrote in his review, “Because it is so shameless and so popular, ‘Les Miserables’ and its ‘to love another person is to see the face of God’ theme are tailor-made for mockery.” (Turan did give the movie a favorable review overall.)
Ann Hornaday in her review in the Washington Post said it was “less a fully realized film than a strung-together series of set pieces, showstoppers, diva moments and production numbers.”
Lisa Schwarzbaum asked in Entertainment Weekly, “Shall I go on about all the ways in which this fake-opulent 'Les Miz' made me long for guillotines while millions of viewers who have softer, more generous hearts than I may swoon with money's-worth contentment?”
“Christian film critics who view themselves primarily as film critics generally pointed out the same flaws in the movie that everybody else did, which is (director Tom) Hooper’s insistence on closeups and going for the easy emotional cues instead of visual storytelling,” said Greg Wright, managing editor of HollywoodJesus.com.
That seeming inattention to the artistry of the cinematic endeavor is probably lost on most Christians who have seen the film, Wright said.
“I always felt, looking at the success of the musical, you couldn’t explain it any other way than it was resonating with people on a spiritual level, not just on a musical level,” Wright said. It carried over in the film too, he said.
His site had four reviewers take a stab the film. “The response was overwhelmingly positive,” Wright said. “The point for us is not what the art is but what the art does from a spiritual point of view.
“We don’t care as much if this is the best movie ever, but are people responding to it, and if so, why?” Wright said.
Like others, marketers heavily targeted HollywoodJesus.com.
“We’re probably the strongest skeptics as anybody when it comes to this stuff because we see so much of it. When you smell a rat, it’s pretty clear that it’s a rat, and 'Les Mis' was not that,” Wright said.
“Studios have been well aware of the size and strength of the faith market,” Bock said. “On particular films, it really helps move the needle.”
For a film of this size, Bock said, it isn’t uncommon for studios to spend anywhere from $30 million to $130 million on a worldwide marketing campaign.
Though he was unwilling to get into specifics on what his company earned for this job, he said that for a job like this one, it would not be uncommon for a studio to spend upward of seven figures for a marketing campaign targeting the faith community, including ad buys in traditional and digital media.
At the end of the day, most marketers won’t say what specifically got viewers to get off their couches and buy tickets to the movie. Christians see the same ads in mainstream newspapers and same trailers at movie theaters as everyone else. Bock says it’s more of an art and less of a science.
Bock is himself an elder at his Presbyterian church in Los Angeles. While that gives him an edge in marketing to the faith community for certain, he said, the best tool any marketer can have is a great product.
“You can put a turd in a Tiffany box, but in the case of this film, there was a Tiffany ring in the Tiffany box,” he said with a chuckle.
CNN's David Daniel contributed to this report.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.