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November 3, 2011

'Preacher' Gunned Down at U. S. Box Office

Despite its star power, acclaimed director, and compelling storyline, the movie flops

Machine Gun Preacher -- the based-on-a-true-story of Sam Childers, a drug-dealing, gun-toting biker who found God and became an alleged mercenary saving African orphans -- has crashed and burned at the U.S. box office.

With a reported $30 million budget, the movie, directed by Marc Forster and starring A-listers Gerard Butler and Michelle Monaghan, was a box office bust, earning only $420,000. At its peak, the film showed in 93 theaters nationwide in its third weekend -- a relatively small release -- but audiences simply were not turning out. Had they been filling up those theaters, the film surely would've expanded to wider release. Such decisions are purely financial -- if it's making good money in limited release, films almost always end up going wider. If it's not, it generally gets pulled after a short run -- which was the case for MGP, which was pulled from theaters on October 18, barely over three weeks after opening.

The film is now opening in the U.K. and other overseas locations; time will tell how it fares in the foreign market.

Why was it such a failure in the U.S.? Bad marketing? Weak promotion? Lack of advertising budget? Spoiled Americans who just don’t care about what’s happening in Africa? Christians won’t see R-rated movies? The subject matter?

Probably a combination of all of the above. We asked a few colleagues -- critics and industry writers -- what they thought. One surmised that fans want to see Butler in action movies, not in a drama -- though this film was quite dramatic. Another thought that Christians are simply turned off by the notion of a Christian carrying a gun. Another said it simply never was in wide enough release to attract a big audience.

We also asked one of the film's producers if she had any theories, but received no response.

We don't think our investigative story -- exposing several of the problems with Childers, his claims, and his orphanage in South Sudan -- had much, if anything, to do with the movie bombing, because readership wasn't very high on that piece, and none of the major wire services picked it up.

Whatever the reason, even though the film itself appears to be packing heat, when it comes to the box office, it's shooting mostly blanks.


To be honest, this is the first I've even heard of this movie. IT sounds interesting, but more like a made-for-video release than anything. The preacher in the title may have scared more people off. Besides, what other movies opened with it may have a factor as well.

I don't like the image of the preacher with a machine gun. I am not a pacifist, I am a republican, but I don't like the image. And in real life the character seems rather sketchy. Give me a movie about Heidi Baker. No machine gun, just the love of God and real miracles. Real ones. I like to keep my soldiers and my missionaries separate. I like action movies but I wouldn't see this. I have no problem generally with R rated movies. I don't think the studio really understood its audience and just made some flawed assumptions about caricatures of right wing evangelicals. Plus your article did influence me. Word of mouth based on your article might have helped depress its release.

I know that the image of a preacher with a machine gun is not widely accepted in Christian circles but I honestly wonder what all those Christians who so sharply protest against this image would do in Sudan in a war situation.
There are some situations when violence can be justified and I believe the one in Sudan against the LRA is such a situation.
Sam Childers is fighting for a good cause and while I'm against violence I cannot imagine any other way to handle the situation there.
I'm sure Childers prays a lot about this.
Anyway, looking forward to see the movie here in Europe!

Why should preachers and guns be separate? Are Christians never to go to war? And if guns are so objectionable in Christian hands, why do we enjoy watching films in which secular "good guys" blast away at the bad guys? I smell hypocrisy.

I'm frustrated because I've been reading about this film since you mentioned it earlier on this blog, before it came out, and it still hasn't shown in my city (Oklahoma City). We have a group wanting to see it, and we just keep waiting for it. And they really did a crummy marketing job. Most people in my church, and friends I have involved in a Sudan non-profit, had never heard of it.

I have read all the posts on pertaining to this movie and I am confused..? Are we upset because the movie did not generate money? Or is it because the title and storyline deviate from pronounced principles of what is good and right and noble..? Or is it because it was a redeemed biker that is actually responsible for all of this in the first place..? Or, Or, Or...

The title alone would keep me from wanting to watch the film. Without major stars (Clooney, Pitt, etc.) on board to indicate the movie wasn't as corny as it sounds, it sounds like a film I'd wait to stream on Netflix, if then.

Mark, Thanks for this update. I'm happy to hear that the movie has not done well. Your earlier investigative report (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/septemberweb-only/machinegunpreacher.html) and the 2010 Vanity Fair article (http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2010/04/christian-vigilante-201004) are both good pieces.

I live in the capital of South Sudan, work for a locally-led Christian non-profit, teach (one of my students is from Nimule, where Childers' orphanage is), and have actually read much of Childers' book. My reaction was to be mostly suspicious and not a little horrified. When the movie was first publicized, it provoked a lot of anger in the S. Sudan expat/aid/missionary community because 1) the last thing South Sudan needs is another militia, and 2) the picture of a foreign missionary with a gun makes other humanitarians' jobs a lot more dangerous. But more interesting was the sense of surprise it engendered. John Ashworth, a well-known and well-informed advisor to the Sudan Ecumenical Forum (and keeper of a useful listserve), circulated the SPLA's denial of association with little more than a curious verbal eye-roll. And through my own work, I have heard of several ministries in Nimule (which is not the war zone Childers seems to like to depict), but not Childers'. That absence of familiarity at least suggests exaggeration on his part.

In the CT investigative report, you were very fair about the decent things you did see at Childers' orphanage, but the statements of the Baylor Medical School professor and the AIC denominational official were incredibly damning.

For those of you readers on the fence about the movie, I suggest putting any time and/or money you would have spent on it towards learning about this brand new country and supporting one of the many excellent ministries in South Sudan.

According to Mark Moring, Michele Monaghan is an "A-lister". After that ludicrous assertion, I had a hard time taking the rest of the article seriously.

While your article may not have had a significant effect on this film's box-office performance, it did keep me from seeing it. I was really excited about this film and was even planning on traveling 20-30 minutes to find a theatre that was showing it. But after hearing about how disputed Childers' story is, my interest dwindled. I still plan on watching the film on DVD sometime, simply because it looks like it may be a good movie, but I was no longer interested enough to see it in the theatres. Even if it was a small number of people, I'm sure that there were others like me who were dissuaded from seeing the movie due to the controversy surrounding Childers' claims.

The poor marketing was probably a larger factor though. I don't know what movies the film's trailer played before, or if they ever advertised it on TV, but I probably never would have heard about the film if not for Christianity Today.

One other reason why this film might have flopped which you failed to mention and which is too often ignored by film studios is the reviews. It didn't exactly get a raving reception by critics. Rotten Tomatoes rates it only at 29% and that's across 102 reviews! I think a large portion of this film's potential audience was made up of Christians who like me, want to see films that explore matters of faith, but have been largely disappointed by the quality of "Christian films". I was hoping that this would be a film that was both good and Christian, like "The Mission", "Chariots of Fire" or "Bella". Had it gotten a positive critical reception I might have even gone to see it, despite the controvery surrounding the story that it was based on. But when I saw that most of the reviews for the film were negative, I decided against it. Most likely, others did too.

You're going to have a hard time getting Christians to turn out en masse to any movie that includes a pretty blatant sex scene.

I would have gone to see the film, but it never released anywhere near me at all. This surprised me because parts of the movie were filmed nearby and a friend of mine and her daughter were actually extras in the production. And I am pretty sure that Gerard Butler is a box-office draw. He is in my crowd, anyway. LOL