First of all, let’s stipulate for the record that Hollywood is not like the rest of the world. That said, the case of the movie “Same Kind of Different as Me” is stranger than most.
It had all the marks of being a blockbuster, or at least a movie that broke out of the “Christian ghetto” and achieved mainstream success. It has big-name stars. Greg Kinnear carried “Heaven Is for Real,” his last faith-based film, to a $100-million box office. Renee Zellweger has an Academy Award and was not that long ago one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses. Djimon Hounsou has been nominated for two Oscars and has starred in a steady string of critical and box-office successes.
Then there’s the story itself. The book “Same Kind of Different as Me” was a publishing phenomenon. It sold more than a million copies. The book is, in many ways, a story for our time. Ron Hall, played by Kinnear in the film, is a rich art dealer. Denver Moore (Hounsou) is a poor but wise former sharecropper who has been in and out of homeless shelters through the years. Ron Hall’s wife Deborah (Zellweger), stricken with cancer, persuades him to carry on her work with the homeless. As a result, Hall and Moore become close friends. The book chronicles their friendship and the struggles they face maintaining it across a wide cultural divide.
In other words: What’s not to like?
Well, to make a hit movie, a thousand things have to go right, not just a few. It’s pretty obvious that Paramount doesn’t understand the faith-based market. Of the 100 top Christian movies of all time, as classified by Box Office Mojo, Paramount has exactly one of them: A 2015 box office bomb called “Captive.” Never heard of it? Me neither, at least till I looked it up. Paramount’s last foray into religious material was 2014’s “Noah,” a movie that proved to be deeply offensive to most Christian moviegoers and reviewers.
We might as well admit, too, that reviews of “Same Kind” have not been great. The reviews cite the good intentions of the movie. Rex Reed wrote in the New York Observer, “It’s so sincere and admirable that it seems churlish to voice objections, but the fact remains that it isn’t very good.”
Indeed, the road to movie heaven takes more than good intentions, or even good actors. It takes a good script, good directing, good marketing, and good lots of other stuff. The movie’s marketers created a self-inflicted wound by releasing a trailer that some critics called racist. The trailer was quickly pulled and revised, but the public-relations damage was done, and the movie’s original release date was pushed back months. It’s likely that the incident caused Paramount to lose its enthusiasm for the project.
In fact, Paramount essentially dumped the marketing and distribution of the movie on to Pure Flix, the company behind a number of faith-based box-office successes, including “God Is Not Dead.” However, Pure Flix involvement seems to be too little, too late. Despite their efforts, the movie opened to a dismal $3-million last weekend on about 1,200 screens.
The movie has one more chance to stay alive in the theaters. This weekend, its second weekend in theatrical release, will tell the tale. Most movies see revenue drop off about 50 percent from week one to week two. If “Same Kind” does better than that, it could encourage theater managers and Paramount to stick with the movie, hoping it “gets legs,” to use a bit of industry parlance.
Either way, “Same Kind of Different as Me” will be studied by faith-based filmmakers for years to come as an example of the dangers and opportunities of trying to put out a faith-oriented film inside the Hollywood system. When it works, as it did with “Risen” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” the results can be financially and artistically successful, but when it doesn’t work . . . . well, it becomes a learning experience for those who follow.
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.