April 21, 2024

Two industry insiders have raised more than $75 million to fund the launch of a studio that aims to elevate production values for faith-based, uplifting and inspirational movies and TV shows.

Director-producer Jon Erwin (“Jesus Revolution,” “Woodlawn”) and former YouTube and Netflix executive Kelly Merryman Hoogstraten have joined forces to create the Wonder Project, a production company based in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. The pair see an enormous opportunity to establish a premium brand for faith-based and faith-infused content that is rooted in Christian traditions.

Lionsgate, producer Jason Blum, United Talent Agency, Sovereign’s Capital and Powerhouse Capital are among the notables who have contributed to more than $75 million in seed and Series A funding raised to date. Merryman Hoogstraten serves as CEO; Erwin is chief creative officer. Dallas Jenkins, the independent producer-director behind the drama series “The Chosen,” which revolves around the life of Jesus, will be a special adviser to the company.

“I know there’s opportunity here because I’m part of this audience,” Erwin tells Variety. “My wife and I have four kids. There’s an audience that I serve with the content that we make. I need more of this in my home.”

Erwin scored a sleeper hit earlier this year at the box office with the Lionsgate-distributed film “Jesus Revolution.” He is accustomed to producing projects on shoestring budgets. But with the financial support of partners like Blum, of Blumhouse fame, and Lionsgate, Wonder Project intends to step up the quality, scale and scope of faith-centric film and TV production. They aim to sell shows and movies to mainstream networks, streamers and film distributors in addition to developing their own in-house distribution and streaming options.

Wonder Group

“What if we could dream a little bigger? What if we could build a studio of our own that empowers creatives in this space with a level of freedom and resources they haven’t had before,” Erwin says. “We want to be partners with studios and streamers and anybody who wants to reach this audience in profound new ways. But we want to do it while building something that is independent and can last.”

Merryman Hoogstraten also counts her family as the audience for Wonder Project content. From her past experience in steering content partnerships for YouTube and content acquisition for Netflix, she’s also well aware of the demand for inspiration and uplifting programming with multi-generational appeal.

“We need to create a scaled solution for the heartland, for the audience that goes to school with my kids,” Merryman Hoogstraten tells Variety. “I love the idea of doing so many great stories that are values-based. We just want to flood the world with hope right now.”

Wonder Project at present has about a dozen writers at work on the early stages of crafting scripts. They’re also looking for more like-minded creators who can help them expand the definition of faith-based content. Erwin has had many interesting overtures since “Jesus Revolution” surprised the industry with its $52 million box office haul.

Hollywood’s largest studios “are realizing the audience is enormous and underserved. They’re also realizing there’s an inherent gap between their knowledge of content and their knowledge of this audience,” Erwin says. “They don’t know how to seize that opportunity. We’re going to build a bridge between those two worlds.”

Jenkins sees Wonder Project as a welcome opportunity for filmmakers who have often struggled to raise financing for production and marketing expenses. “I’m so thrilled there’s a place for people like me who can have the creative freedom and a connection to the audience,” he says. “I don’t want to have to constantly have to convince people that there is an audience for” faith-based movies and TV shows.

Blum, who has crafted a powerful entertainment brand with his Blumhouse banner, respects the expertise and focus that Erwin and Merryman Hoogstraten bring to the company.

“There’s nothing quite like the power of an affinity audience, who is underserved with programming options,” Blum said. “I look forward to the many high-quality stories this talented team will curate and produce for the faith and values audience across the globe over the coming years.”

As a time when U.S. networks and streamers are awash in content options, investors also see the potential in targeting a large niche that is largely ignored by the major studios.

“The Wonder Project is tapping into a massive, global need. The faith and values audience is global, and the quality shows being developed will meet the long-standing and growing consumer demand,” said Ian Doody, managing partner at Powerhouse Capital. “We’ve been very impressed by the team at The Wonder Project, and we’re confident in their vision for creating best-in-class programming for this vast global audience.”

Erwin emphasizes that faith-based content can encompass any genre or format – and it doesn’t mean recitations of Scripture and homilies in every scene.

“We’re going to dream bigger because the audience wants more,” says Erwin. “The content that we make can be infused with values and the things that pull us back together as a family and as Americans.”’

(Pictured: “Jesus Revolution”)

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