We've had a bit of a respite, but the relative doldrums of early spring at the multiplex offer a window of opportunity. It's "faith-based" cinema, and unless you were already in the target audience, you probably don't even know it's out there.
Last week, The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry made a stealth opening at one Salt Lake Valley theater; today, Letters to God opens at several theaters. Both are films aimed at a Christian audience, and like most films of this kind, the distributors didn't go out of their way to make them available to the press in advance. That's just one part of a marketing strategy that's about as targeted as marketing gets in the film distribution biz. They target churches and Christian-oriented Websites, not really bothering to spend their limited resources on big newspaper ads or screenings for critics. And for a lot of these films, it's a strategy that works.
It also betrays exactly what these movies are: the kind of "art" that makes viewers feel warm and fuzzy about what they already believe to be true. Back in 2007, I wrote a piece for the now-defunct Screengrab blog at Nerve.com (the link is dead as well) about how depressing it is that the entire subject of faith has largely been abandoned by serious filmmakers, and left in the hands of hacks pandering to true believers -- but also that this isn't a terribly different phenomenon from left-leaning documentary filmmakers churning out one redundant Iraq-themed documentary after another. In neither cases are the audiences really looking to be challenged. Which, from a fiscal standpoint, is fairly savvy, as annoying as it is for those who don't just want to be stroked.
For all I know, The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry and Letters to God are both brilliant, complex examinations of this uniquely human experience of belief, doubt and desire for the transcendent. Or maybe they're just okay. Or worse. But the fact that they sneak into town with little desire to cast a wide net casts some doubts on how they'd play to anything but a cherry-picked audience. The best and brightest of the world's filmmakers have largely abandoned this theme, exceptions like Utah independent filmmaker Richard Dutcher notwithstanding. And since nature -- and the pious -- abhor a vacuum, mediocrity has rushed in to fill it. God help those of us who long for something with a little more substance.