Christian-themed films, such as Noah, a big hit with US cinema-goers
Rash of faith-based films impress US audiences, and generate impressive box office sales
Hollywood has embraced God in a big - and lucrative - way.
The movie Heaven is for Real, which depicts the story of a young boy who claims to have visited heaven during a near-death experience, is the fourth faith-based film this year to stir movie-going audiences with impressive box office numbers.
Made for US$12 million, the film, which stars Greg Kinnear, collected US$21.5 million over the Easter weekend in US and Canadian cinemas.
Two other Christian-based films also cracked the top 10. Noah stars Russell Crowe as the biblical figure and was ninth. It has generated US$93 million at domestic cinemas since opening.
God's Not Dead, about a religious first-year college student who debates his professor over the existence of God, was 10th and has totalled US$48 million over five weeks, despite playing in only about half the numbers of cinemas of Hollywood's larger films.
Fox's Son of God, an adaptation of producer Mark Burnett's 10-hour TV mini series The Bible, generated US$59 million in domestic ticket sales after opening earlier this year.
"This audience has long felt left out by Hollywood and it certainly looks like this isn't the case any more," said film market analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "The numbers will encourage studios to make more of these types of films."
Studios have been searching for more faith-based films since Mel Gibson's 2004 The Passion of the Christ, which tallied US$611.9 million in worldwide ticket sales and was made on a modest US$30 million budget.
In the past five years alone, Hollywood has made 26 movies the website Box Office Mojo classifies as "Christian" films, including three based on The Chronicles of Narnia fantasy novels by C.S. Lewis that literary academics say adopted several Christian themes.
"There's a core audience and they're very interested in seeing films with a faith-based centre," said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribute for Sony Pictures Entertainment.
"The one main ingredient most have is that they are somewhat inspirational in nature. People feel like they get something out of it."
Not all get great reviews. Heaven is for Real got a positive rating from only 31 of 59 reviewers, according to the website Rotten Tomatoes.
But some of the films can have a built-in marketing vehicle, according to David White, whose company Pure Flix produced the film God's Not Dead.
White said Pure Flix waged an aggressive grass-roots campaign that included screening the film for 8,000 pastors before its opening.
"We have a lot of relationships to the gatekeepers who can rally their people to go to the movie theatre," said, adding that of the American audience, "160 million-plus people call themselves Christians".