Hilary Swank as hairdresser Sharon Stevens in 'Ordinary Angels'. Photo courtesy Kingdom Story Company

Can 'Ordinary Angels' kickstart film industry?

  • February 14, 2024

The North American box office is off to a feeble start in 2024. 

January produced a total haul of $513.6 million. According to the media measurement and analytics company Comscore, this marks the worst performance for the first month of the year, outside of the COVID years, since 1999.

And while getting patrons into cinemas is always a tricky proposition during Super Bowl weekend, this year’s crop of movies, led by Argylle and Lisa Frankenstein, totalled around $38 million. Again not counting the pandemic years, it’s the most anemic haul for a weekend coinciding with the big game since the $37 million amassed from Jan. 26-28, 1990.

Undeniably, the film industry is desperate for a good news story. Most of Hollywood has fixed its gaze on the mega-hit prospects of Dune: Part Two, which opens March 1. But might the faith-based Ordinary Angels, debuting a week earlier on Feb. 23, also have the potential to emerge as one of the very few early-year winners?

During the same weekend frame in 2023 (Feb. 24-26), the Kingdom Story Company and its partner Lionsgate basked in a robust $15.8 million showing for Jesus Revolution, budgeted at $15 million. This strong launch catapulted this based-on-a-true-story film to a final total of $54.3 million.

Box office forecasting suggests Ordinary Angels is tracking to secure a similar opening. How it fares from there is reliant on solid word of mouth. 

Director Jon Gunn told The Catholic Register in an interview he is heartened by how people are receiving his feature in test screenings. 

“People are coming out very uplifted and encouraged to act out their faith,” said Gunn. “It is a great reminder of how one person can make a difference in a life and how putting your faith into action is not only impactful to the person you are helping but also meaningful for yourself.”

Ordinary Angels depicts how struggling hairdresser Sharon Stevens (Hilary Swank) discovers a new purpose for her life when she encounters widowed father Ed Schmitt (Alan Ritchson) and his two young daughters. With the youngest girl critically ill and in need of a liver transplant, the fierce Stevens single-handedly rallies the entire town of Louisville, Kentucky, to help save the child in the aftermath of a snowstorm caused by the infamous 1994 North American cold wave.

Gunn, who was part of the Jesus Revolution team and has also collaborated with Lionsgate and Kingdom Story Company on I Still Believe, American Underdog and The Unbreakable Boy (to be released in 2025), was told about Ordinary Angels by Lionsgate. This true story has been a long-developing passion project for the studio, initially founded in Vancouver in 1997. 

Meg Tilly, who once earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for 1985’s Agnes of God, worked on the screenplay for many years. Kelly Fremon Craig, the writer and director of 2023’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, also contributed to the script.   

Gunn, the writer for all his other productions with Kingdom Story Company and Lionsgate, reacted enthusiastically to Tilly and Craig’s work. 

“It was instantly a very moving project and kind of hard to believe it is a true story because of how much this family went through and overcame,” said Gunn. “I just loved, specifically, that it was a story of community coming together. It was a great story to tell at this time with so much divisiveness in our culture. It is a wonderful reminder of what it’s like to live in a culture where people selflessly help one another. It is charming, funny, heartbreaking and inspirational — it just had all of it.”

This script was clearly a draw for the talent in front of the camera. Swank, a two-time best actress Oscar winner for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, has gravitated toward gritty roles like Stevens throughout her 30-year career. Meanwhile, Ritchson’s role as Schmitt is a departure for the performer who has primarily starred in action television series and flicks like Reacher and Fast X over the past decade. 

For Gunn, he said collaborating with Swank — he saw Million Dollar Baby in theatres three times — and Ritchson was “such a gift.” He also praised the supporting cast, which includes Amy Acker, Skywalker Hughes, Tamala Jones, Emily Mitchell, Drew Powell and Nancy Travis.

To capture an authentic characterization of Sharon Stevens, whom Gunn hails as “such a dynamic women who can move mountains with sheer will,” required Swank to nail her voice and accent. Stevens recorded herself reciting the dialogue in the script. The actress then studied the tape to uncover Stevens’ essence. Swank and Jones also completed beauty school to learn how to cut and style hair properly. 

Ritchson spent some time working with some professional roofers to inhabit Schmitt.  

Most of Ordinary Angels’ principal photography was filmed in Winnipeg to attain the blizzard conditions Gunn sought for the climactic snowstorm sequence. Accurately depicting Louisville covered in snow like it was on Jan. 17, 1994, was logistically challenging, said Gunn. 

“There was a lot of snow there, which was great, but the big challenge is even when you have a lot of snow, you have to control that snow,” said Gunn. “We have traffic jams with half a mile of highway shut down, two feet of snow and 70 cars stuck. I think it took us about four days to transfer 150 truckloads of snow to build that traffic jam.”

Gunn said he is delighted to hear that churches are buying out theatres or arranging large groups to see Ordinary Angels when it comes out on Feb. 23 (some larger markets will have Feb. 22 evening screenings). He said these faith-based films “must be supported in a meaningful way” during opening weekend. 

“It makes a huge difference to the success of this movie and the opportunities we have to make more and more of these movies.”

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