On March 27, Jon Erwin took the stage at Proclaim 19, this year’s National Religious Broadcasters convention in Anaheim, California, with the confidence of someone sure his moment had arrived.
He had plenty of reason to believe it. Erwin, a square-jawed thirty-something, and his brother Andrew, the self-described introvert of the pair, had directed the biggest independent movie of the past year. Not Wes Anderson, not Alfonso Cuarón, not Spike Lee, but Andrew and Jon Erwin, sons of a former Alabama state senator, ESPN camera operators turned filmmakers whose stated goal is “to recapture the imagination of a generation with the gospel.”
“We’re here to dream, and we’re here to share with you a bit of what God’s doing in the entertainment business,” Jon Erwin told the standing-room-only crowd. “God is on the move in the entertainment business in a way that I can’t fully explain or understand, but I’m here to share it with you today.”
In 2018, the rest of the specialty box office dwelled in the long shadow of I Can Only Imagine, the Erwins’ fourth feature – an earnest, soft-filter biopic about Christian musician Bart Millard, who had a crossover hit with the eponymous song in the early aughts. But, unless you were in the movie’s target demographic, it’s possible that this is the first you’re hearing of it. I Can Only Imagine came from what has largely existed as a miniature parallel Christian showbiz universe with its own big-name filmmakers, its own festivals, its own recurring stars (like Kirk Cameron, Sarah Drew, and Kevin Sorbo).
It’s a universe in which endings are uplifting, brushes with death offer glimpses of the divine, and sex happens way offscreen, between a man and a woman, in the context of marriage. Like most faith-based releases, I Can Only Imagine wasn’t screened for press or broadly marketed, but it reached its intended audience primarily via a grassroots campaign targeting churches and ministries, Christian radio, and Christian press.