J. Michael Finley stars as Bart Millard in "I Can Only Imagine"

J. Michael Finley stars as Bart Millard in “I Can Only Imagine”

On a per-screen basis, the new movie about one of the most popular Christian songs of the modern era beat out a trio of heavy hitters at the box office last weekend.

“I Can Only Imagine,” earning $17 million in its first weekend, was No. 1 with a $10,400 per-screen average across 1,600 screens.

That was double the average against its competition, “Black Panther,” “Tomb Raider” and “A Wrinkle in Time.”

The Christian family guide to movies, Movieguide, said few thought the movie — starring J. Michael Finley as MercyMe singer Bart Millard and Dennis Quaid as his father — would do so well.

Major entertainment publications initially forecast an opening of $2 million to $4 million for the faith-based drama, which had a budget of only $7 million.

Dennis Quaid in "I Can Only Imagine"

Dennis Quaid in “I Can Only Imagine”

Movieguide also noted that 21st Century Fox’s LGBT teen romance movie, which opened in 800 more theaters, grossed only $11 million, with a per-screen average of $4,700. In its second weekend, Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time” brought in $16 million.

“I Can Only Imagine” recounts the untold story behind the song, beginning with Millard’s unhappy childhood, growing up with an abusive father and a mother who left both of them when he was an adolescent.

Movieguide noted the “church-going audience” has surprised Hollywood before with independent hits such as “God’s Not Dead.”

“However, while there’s been a rise in quality faith-based movies, there has also been a rise in poorly conceived and terribly executed movies targeting the Christian moviegoers, from both inside of Hollywood and inside the church,” Movieguide said.

But “I Can Only Imagine” avoided the pitfalls, because “it was a great story well told” and it “courted church-going individuals with a compelling and genuine marketing campaign”

Directors Jon and Andrew Erwin promoted the movie to churches and schools, and stars Dennis Quaid and Trace Adkins “did not shy away from the faith content of their movie,” Movieguide said.

In media interviews, Quaid talked about his own faith and released a song he had been writing for his mother for decades called “On My Way to Heaven.”

Millard’s band MercyMe also has promoted the movie.

See the trailer for “I Can Only Imagine”:

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