Christian Movie 'I Can Only Imagine' Surprises Box Office With $17 Million Opening

"I Can Only Imagine" by the group MercyMe is the greatest-selling contemporary Christian song of all time. Now the movie based on the story behind the song has surprised many for landing in the top third spot for this past weekend's box office openings. Though Disney's Black Panther is still No. 1 followed by the Tomb Raider reboot, I Can Only Imagine beat out A Wrinkle in Time and the independent film Love, Simon, which was presented on 800 more screens, came in fifth place. The Christian-based movie shot past its earlier estimates of $2 million-$8 million with a weekend total of $17,064,640 according to

Telling the story of MercyMe's lead singer Bart Millard and the inspiration behind the song, I Can Only Imagine stars J. Michael Finley as Millard and Dennis Quaid as his father. Trace Adkins, Priscilla C. Shirer, Madeline Carroll and Cloris Leachman also star. The movie was directed by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin, who also directed Woodlawn (2015) and Mom's Night Out (2014) and is their most successful film to date. Variety reported that Howard Cohen, Roadside Attractions co-president was assuming a good performance due to a $1.6 million in pre-sales and 130 million trailer views.

"We knew that it was going to do well, but we never expected a $17 million opening," Cohen admitted. "We're planning to be on well over 2,000 screens next weekend."

J. Michael Finley and Dennis Quaid in
J. Michael Finley and Dennis Quaid

The Bart Millard film is also receiving good reviews from movie critics as well. Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 64 percent "fresh" rating from critics and an even higher 96 percent audience approval score.

"The movie works for the same reason the song does: It lightens the burden of the pain people are shouldering today, and gives them something to look forward to," said Variety's Peter Debruge. Screen It's Jim Judy said that the movie is "A solid offering that's given me faith that a faith-based film can deliver something beyond a sermon."

But the film didn't please everyone. Frank Scheck from the Hollywood Reporter said of the film, "Like so many faith-based efforts, I Can Only Imagine suffers from a terminal case of self-importance."

It's not surprising to see financial success for faith-based movies during the weeks leading to Easter (Lionsgate's The Shack was last year's top film) and I Can Only Imagine will have to share space next week with the addition of Sony's Paul, Apostle of Christ and God's Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness from PureFlix.

The movie is complemented by sales of MercyMe's latest album; I Can Only Imagine – The Very Best of MercyMe, which features 13 songs from the band including "The Movie Session" version of movie's title song.