May 10th, 2014
04:00 AM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Contributing Editor
(CNN) - A new movie genre debuts at the box office this weekend: the Christian comedy.
"Moms’ Night Out" starring Patricia Heaton and Sean Astin is opening on more than 1,000 screens, and it aims to do something no other Christian major motion picture has endeavored to do: make you laugh. On purpose.
There has been no shortage of laughably bad Christian movies. "Left Behind," anyone?
From “The Passion of the Christ,” to “Fireproof,” to “Courageous,” the genre has historically leaned heavily on biblical epics and inspiration to stir the faithful, or evangelical fare designed convert the masses.
But "Moms’ Night Out" is entirely different, a PG-rated comedy about the hijinks of middle-class Christian families, ordinary folks living ordinary lives. Astin called the movie "ballsy" for focusing on this demographic.
"Middle-class Christian families in America have every right to have their lives reflected on film," Astin said. "A lot of people will look at this movie and wouldn't see it as evangelical polemic."
In the film, three moms, played by Sarah Drew, Andrea Logan White and Heaton, need a break from diapers and messes and teenagers - never mind the societal pressure of being a perfect Christian parent. Desperate for a night out, they hit the town only to have their plans foiled by a missing baby, a car chase, their husbands, and cops with a Taser. There are laughs, there are tears and there is a bright hopeful message for parents: God loves you even in your imperfections and you are not alone.
Heaton said, “It’s nice to have this perspective because raising kids is sort of an unsung job. We need to constantly remember what an important job that is, because it’s not glamorous and it’s repetitive and it can be really difficult. ... To get through the toddler, baby stage is really hard. You’re exhausted. So I think this movie is going to be really encouraging to some people.”
Only at the end of the movie do you realize there were no sex jokes, no romps through strip clubs, and no crass profanity - bread and butter for success comedies in the last decade. (Or even this same weekend, as the raunchy “Neighbors” hits theaters, too.)
“Moms’ Night Out” is squeaky-clean family fun. And TriStar Pictures and its imprint AFFIRM films are betting there is a vast, untapped audience of people – just like the ones on the screen – hungry for this type of film.
But unlike other films with more direct Christian messages, churches are much less likely to buy out theaters in bulk as they did for "Son of God" and "God's Not Dead," a move that brought those films big returns at the box office.
Not to mention, “Moms’ Night Out” has already taken heat from Christian reviewers who complained it is not Christian enough and secular reviewers who said it was unfunny and anti-feminist.
“We went in with eyes wide open and recognized this is uncharted territory," said Rich Peluso, senior vice president of AFFIRM Films.
A string of hits
Faithy films have paid off big this year at the box office. Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's re-edit of their History Channel miniseries "Son of God" took in $60 million. "God's Not Dead," decried by critics as campy, was a hit with the people who matter most to studios - ticket purchasers. The film has brought in $55 million. Not bad for a movie with a $2 million budget, and Kevin Sorbo and the "Duck Dynasty" guys on the marquee.
Then there is "Heaven is for Real," which was produced in part by megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes and stars Greg Kinnear. The film took in $67 million, a surprise hit that was buoyed in part by a built-in audience familiar with the bestselling book the movie is based on.
"Noah" had Academy Award-nominated director Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”) and a massive $125 million budget, but was a bust with Christian audiences domestically. The biblical epic made only $99 million in the U.S. but was hit on overseas, where it took in $230 million.
"Moms’ Night Out" is hoping to catch this rising tide, but the challenges facing the film are great.
Funny is hard
“I think they’re up against a big wall," said Kerri Pomarolli, a comedian living in Los Angeles.
"The same people who are watching 'Mom’s Night Out' are secretly Netflixing [R-rated comedy fare like] 'Identity Theft' and 'This is 40,’” she joked.
But Pomarolli knows this audience well. She is a mother and Christian who plays her comedy act clean and has appeared everywhere from “The Tonight Show” to the Christian Broadcasting Network.
“It’s a challenge to write clean,” she said, because “you just want to be funny.”
She calls this film a "valiant effort," and has written a tie-in devotional book to the film for Christian moms.
“The audiences are conditioned to laugh at dirty stuff. They can’t even do innuendo. That crowd would have judged them if they had anything even remotely naughty.”
For this film to be a hit it will actually need to be funny to a wide audience, said Kutter Callaway, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.
"Part of what is necessary for humor, and why Christians do it so bad, is there needs to be a tension there. There needs to be something dark or a tragic that makes life funny,” he said.
“Christians struggle with humor just like they struggle with how to posture themselves with anything that is dark or provocative,” he said.
Christian filmmakers have a tendency to scrub the darkness and focus on the light, Callaway said. "Because this film is coming from a Christian perspective … you worry about the comedy getting neutered. ... Christians still need it to be funny and not trite.”
That tension between faith and funny may not be an impossible hurdle for the film, according to Craig Detweiler, a filmmaker and communications professor at Pepperdine University who has worked with studios on direct marketing to churches.
"I think it will surprise people who tend to associate Christianity with roots in tragedy instead of comedy," he said. "But Jesus was known for his parables that ended in punch lines. He was pretty good with zingers.”
Jesus was fond of calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” plus his style as a traveling preacher was to teach in stories, or parables, that needed to stick in the minds of his audience.
“These films are succeeding because it’s a huge, underserved market just looking for what the title says, a mom’s night out. Kind of a light, bright, inspiring picture. If you can offer that to this audience I think they’ll respond,” Detweiler said. “It’s brilliant to actually try to appeal to mothers. It’s so rare to have mom as the hero.”
Making Moms work
Unlike other independent films in which big names are ridden into the ground like a sweaty mule, shoehorned into every possible scene in the movie, "Moms’ Night Out” has an ensemble cast - an amazing feat for a film with a budget just under $5 million, according to Andrew and John Erwin, the brothers who directed the film.
"We wanted a very strong ensemble," Jon Erwin said. "The cast, I can't believe we got them for what we had," his brother Andrew said.
Heaton, Astin and country music super star Trace Atkins blend in seamlessly with other less familiar actors.
"When you show something to someone they didn’t know existed - the family-friendly clean comedy - the talent just flocked. It was a matter of getting them to read it and they were in,” Peluso said. "Everyone felt comfortable with what this picture was and the resources available.”
White plays a supporting role in the film as one of the hip young moms in the trio out for the night. As a Christian and mom of three who attends a non-denominational church in West Lake, California, White said the movie hit home for her.
"Nobody tells you how hard it is to be a mom and wife. Nobody tells you how hard it is. Especially as a Christian, you’re supposed to act like you have it all together,” she said. “There’s so many of us that want to raise our kids in the way of the Lord and feel like we put ourselves last.”
White said their goal with the film was “to encourage women and encourage families and bring them to a closer relationship to God and to be able to feel supported.”
“There’s definitely an audience. There’s so many people in this country that want to see a clean comedy,” she said.
Astin, who plays a husband and father in the film, said working on the project made him examine his own life. "Truth is that everyone has feelings of self-doubt (and) anxiety. To have a movie like this to spend time with is, I think, really refreshing for a lot of moviegoers."
Selling the movie
Even feel-good movies have to make money in Hollywood.
AFFIRM said this film has all the makings to be a hit, based on a business model they have honed over the past decade with movies targeted to Christians and early screenings of this film.
“We’re very confident, based on the fact we’ve screened it for 10,000 people," Peluso said.
Advanced ticket sales for the film were strong leading into the weekend.
Peluso added in some cases, those 1,000 screens where the film will run this weekend were picked based on how other faith-centered movies like “Soul Surfer” had performed.“We spent a lot of time down to the local, granular level, screen by screen.” They have also heavily marketed the film to moms groups and churches.
Despite bad press reviews, the movie has screened incredibly well with that vast, untapped audience Peluso believes the film can reach.
"The only review I care about is the people who were standing in line 90 minutes before with a $10 bill in their hand,” Peluso said.
Astin, whose career includes roles in iconic films from “The Goonies” to “Lord of Rings,” said this film is the one people will appreciate most.
"I promise you this, this movie will live for years in the hearts and minds of the community it's aimed at," Astin said. "People will come up to me for years, a million times, everywhere I go, and tell me, 'I’ve been waiting for this kind of movie forever. Thank you for making it.'"
CNN's Daniel Burke and Topher Gauk-Roger contributed to this report.
About this blog
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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.