Movie News & Reviews

Imagine this: A hit faith-based movie with Sacramento ties

J. Michael Finley, left, and Dennis Quaid play son and father in the faith-based film, "I Can Only Imagine," based on the hit Christian song of the same name.
J. Michael Finley, left, and Dennis Quaid play son and father in the faith-based film, "I Can Only Imagine," based on the hit Christian song of the same name. Mission Pictures International

Producer Cindy Bond had high hopes for her latest movie, but she never imagined the reception it would receive. Her faith-based film, “I Can Only Imagine,” is holding its own against comic-book action movies and a Disney powerhouse.

“Oh my gosh, I have not landed; I’m just orbiting the earth,” said the Sacramento native in a phone interview. “My feet haven’t touched the ground.”

Based on the hit Contemporary Christian song by the same name, “I Can Only Imagine” became a huge surprise at the box office when it opened March 16. The family drama earned more than $17 million its first weekend of release, finishing third behind only “Black Panther” and “Tomb Raider” and ahead of Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time.”

“Hollywood is not ignoring this faith-based film,” she said. “This movie jumped up and said, ‘Hello!’ It elevated the whole genre.”

Starring Dennis Quaid and J. Michael Finley, the movie was written and directed by brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin and produced by Kevin Downes. Their earlier credits include “Moms’ Night Out” and “Woodlawn.”

“This has been an 8½-year journey,” said Bond, who has produced 18 films and distributed dozens more. “This movie started with a simple idea … to base a movie on an iconic Christian song and create a beautiful, up-lifting experience in the theater like in church.

“But this has been unbelievable,” she added. “None of us knew this would happen.”

Initial industry estimates pegged box office expectations for “I Can Only Imagine,” which cost about $7 million to produce, at $3 million to $4 million for its first weekend. It more than quadrupled that estimate, averaging $10,475 per screen.

“I’m a numbers freak,” Bond said. “You could see the uptick happening. You could palpably feel the momentum of this movie.”

With a well-planned marketing campaign that reached out to ministries and music lovers, “I Can Only Imagine” opened in 1,627 theaters its first weekend. This week, it added another 600-plus screens to top 2,200.

Although its reviews have been middling, the film received an “A+” CinemaScore from audiences, which skewed heavily female (67 percent) and older (80 percent over 35).

“We did a lot of advance screenings,” Bond said. “I’ve literally watched (this movie) a hundred times. Everywhere, it got great reactions.

“I’m a pretty tough critic, especially of my own work,” she continued. “But there’s something about this film, you knew it would be special. As things were coming together, you could just feel it.”

Bond, 58, is a longtime industry veteran, working in Hollywood for more than 30 years. Before “I Can Only Imagine,” her best-known movie was the 1999 religious thriller “The Omega Code,” which she distributed. It earned almost $13 million.

A Del Oro High graduate, Bond grew up in Land Park and Loomis before pursuing a career as a professional golfer. She went to San Diego State University on a golf scholarship. Besides golf, she also worked as an actress and model.

“Then, I fell in love,” she said. “I married Jungle Boy.”

As a child, actor Steve Bond starred in “Tarzan and the Jungle Boy,” and later became a heartthrob on “General Hospital.”

“I segued my career into producing,” Cindy Bond said.

She devoted her work to creating family entertainment for such outlets as the Hallmark Channel.

“I grew up in Sacramento loving movies, particularly big musicals or (family films) that made you laugh, made you cry,” she said. “But when I started working as a producer in L.A., I looked around and thought, what happened to all those movies I loved as a kid? At that time (in the 1990s), Hollywood had turned very dark. I decided I wanted to make movies that would make a positive difference in the world.”

“I Can Only Imagine” has some mainstream heavyweights behind its surge. Lionsgate (“The Hunger Games”) and Roadside Attractions (“Manchester by the Sea”) handled the nationwide release. Lionsgate promoted the new movie with trailers on “Wonder,” its popular 2017 holiday release. “I Can Only Imagine” gave Roadside Attractions’ its all-time best opening weekend.

Bond and her team of movie makers built on the success of an immensely popular song.

Originally released in 1999 (and re-recorded in 2001), the ballad became the all-time greatest hit in Contemporary Christian music history. Written by Bart Millard and recorded by MercyMe, “I Can Only Imagine” ranks as the only Christian single to reach double-platinum with more than 2.5 million sold. A rare Christian crossover success, the song also reached No. 5 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary rankings.

Stretching its audience from country to gospel, “I Can Only Imagine” has been covered by several other artists including Amy Grant, Marie Osmond, Wynonna Judd and Trevor Mann.

MercyMe’s lead vocalist, Millard was inspired by the death of his father, Arthur “Bub” Millard Jr., a complicated man who fought his own demons before finding peace in religion shortly before his death to cancer.

In the movie, veteran actor Quaid plays the abusive dad and Finley, a Broadway performer in his first film, portrays the grown-up songwriter.

In search of the right song for a movie, Bond contacted a friend in Nashville. That led to Millard.

“I did a lot of work to learn Bart’s story,” Bond said. “We got the rights to the song and Bart’s life story. Then, everything just kind of fell into place.”

Bond expects “I Can Only Imagine” to find success with a wider audience.

“At its heart, it’s a father-son story,” she said. “It’s a story of forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation. It will make you cry, but those are happy tears. Bring plenty of tissues.”