Fans Pour Funding—and Faith—Into a Hit Drama About Jesus

Crowdfunding has raised millions for ‘The Chosen,’ an ambitious series exploring characters from the New Testament. Fans have already chipped in enough for three seasons—and are driving ticket sales for a Christmas special coming to movie theaters.

Last winter 2,000 people costumed in robes and headscarves gathered on a grassy slope here to shoot the season finale of a drama with no ties to any Hollywood studio, network or streaming service. “The Chosen,” a saga about the adult life of Jesus and his disciples, is financed completely by its audience. Most of the extras had paid $1,000 each to be part of the climactic scene leading up to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Now, down the hill from that spot, construction crews are building a roughly $20 million production complex dedicated to “The Chosen.” They’re pouring concrete for a soundstage the size of a football field, soon to be flanked by a cafeteria and workshops for sets and costumes. Next, they’ll break ground for a replica of Capernaum, an ancient village on the Sea of Galilee.

Dallas Jenkins, the filmmaker who created “The Chosen,” says the show’s style is modeled more on “Friday Night Lights” than other Christian TV shows and movies. Mary Magdalene relapses into vice. The apostle Matthew is on the autism spectrum. Jesus’ miracles get back stories.

By fleshing out biblical characters across multiple seasons, the show has inspired fan discussion, debate and squabbling on a level more typical of the Marvel or Star Wars series. Except that for “Chosen” fans, the dynamic is fueled by religious faith.

The show grew out of a short film and fundraising messages Mr. Jenkins posted online in 2017. Some 16,000 people paid at least $100 each to fund the shooting of the first season in 2018, budgeted at $11 million. In exchange, this flock of financial backers got an equity stake in the company that produced the show. They received shares in The Chosen LLC through an offering process filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. These initial investors could eventually share in any profits from the show and other revenue sources, such as sales of “Chosen” T-shirts and bible study books co-written by Amanda Jenkins, the creator’s wife.

Majority owners in the company, including Mr. Jenkins (who received an annual salary of $300,000, according to an SEC filing) won’t share in profits until the startup investors earn back their initial stake plus a profit of at least 20%.

The success of the series is a powerful reminder to Hollywood that faith-focused projects can sometimes become breakthrough hits. But what makes “The Chosen” even more of an outlier is the way it is supercharging the crowdfunding model to sustain production through multiple seasons. Though “The Chosen” is free to watch, viewers have poured $40 million and counting into its production budget, enough to pay for three out of a planned seven seasons. The costs of building the new production facilities, on a 1,200-acre camp owned by the Salvation Army, are being covered by a smaller group of the show’s fans.

Producers say viewership was sluggish when the first season premiered for a fee in 2019. But the audience spiked when they made the series free on a “Chosen” app, now the show’s main distribution hub, and viewers continued to multiply during the pandemic’s lockdown months. The show has been translated into 50 languages, and is licensed to video services from Amazon to Peacock. Producers estimate that its 16 episodes have been viewed 312 million times. Now the “Chosen” audience is set to converge in person in movie theaters.

Starting Dec. 1, about 1,700 theaters will feature screenings of a “Chosen” Christmas special, including musical performances and a new episode in which Mother Mary (a series character played by Vanessa Benavente) flashes back to her son’s birth. Distributor Fathom Events, known for one- or two- day releases of classic movies, live opera and other specialty fare, expanded the “Chosen” event to 10 days. Ticket sales are approaching $6 million so far, putting “Christmas with ‘The Chosen’” on track to be Fathom’s bestseller ever, according to chief executive Ray Nutt.

Read the full story at WSJ.