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Banking on the Bible

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Like the animals on Noah’s ark, ideas in Hollywood often come in twos: One giant asteroid movie or adaptation of a dystopian YA novel makes a fortune, another one gets greenlit. So when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ stunned the film industry in 2004 by grossing $612 million worldwide, you’d have thought every studio executive in town would have had an instant come-to-Jesus moment and ordered up a biblical blockbuster. But for a film industry regarded by some Christians as a moral cesspool, creating a Bible movie as credible as Passion — which had been made outside the studio system by a devout believer — was about as easy as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. While Bible heroes routinely strode across the big screen in the 1950s and ’60s, Hollywood had long since lost the know-how to make and market films for the faithful, says Jonathan Bock, founder and president of the faith-based marketing firm Grace Hill Media: “If a studio executive turned around the Monday morning after Passion opened and said, ‘I want a Passion of the Christ!’ — you might as well have said, ‘I want a movie about Peruvian farmers!'”

Well, to every thing there is a season, as the good book says. This year will see the release of three major movies drawn from the pages of the Bible — a veritable flood by recent standards. In addition to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (out March 28), there’s Son of God (out Feb. 28), a retelling of the life of Jesus Christ based on last year’s smash History channel miniseries The Bible, and Ridley Scott’s swords-and-sandals epic Exodus, arriving on Dec. 12 with Christian Bale as Moses.

While the industry may be experiencing a religious awakening of sorts, its relationship with the faith community has been fraught with tension and mutual distrust. The path forward is hardly certain. “It’s uncharted territory,” says DeVon Franklin, senior vice president of production at Columbia Tristar Pictures and, as it happens, a Christian minister. “I know a number of Christians still feel like ‘Does Hollywood really value me? Do they really want me to show up at a film?’ And Hollywood sometimes says, ‘We want to, but we’re just not sure how to do it.'”

In the wake of Passion, Hollywood took immediate, if cautious, steps to reach out to a demographic it had often largely dismissed as flyover country. A few studios launched faith-oriented divisions, including FoxFaith and Sony’s Affirm Films, acquiring modestly budgeted Christian-friendly movies (e.g., the inspirational football film Facing the Giants and the Kirk Cameron firefighter movie Fireproof) and releasing them in a handful of markets or directly to DVD. The industry expanded its efforts, enlisting marketing consultants like Bock and screening films at one of a smattering of large Christian conferences. “Folks in Hollywood wisely realized that there’s a large audience there, and they were smart to start increasing the supply,” says Julie Fairchild, who co-runs a faith-based marketing and publicity company in Dallas. “Christians do go to the movies — and their money is green.”

Yet for every successful attempt to tap into the faith community — such as 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and 2009’s The Blind Side, both of which drew strong Christian followings — there has been a misfire. The 2006 Bible drama The Nativity Story failed to connect with its intended audience, perhaps because some Christians were uncomfortable with the fact that the actress playing the Virgin Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) became pregnant out of wedlock just after shooting. Ambitions to lure churchgoers to watch Steve Carell grow a beard and build an ark in the 2007 comedy Evan Almighty flopped mightily, with many seeing the film — which ended with a stone tablet being turned over to reveal an 11th Commandment, “Thou Shalt Do the Dance” — as not just unfunny but un-Christian. “Obviously there’s some pushback,” says Christian-media consultant Phil Cooke. “There are some areas of the Christian community where they’re thinking, ‘[Hollywood’s] just trying to make money off Christians.'”

To successfully engage this audience, the studios have had to gain an understanding and even an empathy for the values and worldview of the faithful. Hollywood can carpet bomb churches with film screenings and free T-shirts, but it won’t boost ticket sales if the people in the pews feel as if they’re being pandered to — as they have at times when studios have commissioned devotional study guides for movies like Rocky Balboa and Spider-Man 3. “You can’t cheat it,” says Bob Berney, who distributed The Passion of the Christ as then president of Newmarket Films. “There has to be something in the film that appeals to the audience in an authentic way or they won’t respond. It will backfire.”

Taking a page straight from the Passion playbook, Son of God producer Mark Burnett has worked aggressively to lay the groundwork for the film with Christians, touring the country and lining up endorsements from religious leaders including T.D. Jakes, Rick Warren, and Joel Osteen. “Some of our friends in Hollywood laugh at me, going door-to-door to theatergoers,” Burnett says. “But churches are booking screens and asking people to bring someone with them: a co-worker, a family member who hasn’t been to church lately or doesn’t know Jesus. There’s a movement starting.”

While Son of God was made by and largely for devout Christians, Aronofsky’s Noah and Scott’s Exodus are walking a trickier line, hoping to appeal to mainstream moviegoers without offending believers. Even as Noah braces for controversy over supposed liberties taken with the original Bible story, insiders are already saying that Exodus, which just wrapped in January, will be pitched to audiences more as a Gladiator-style action epic than a biblical movie per se. Still, religious-minded viewers will no doubt keep a watchful eye on how Scott handles their sacred text. “The Old Testament was a gritty, rough, violent place, but you can’t take all the weight off the faith end of the teeter-totter,” says Kris Fuhr, vice president of marketing for the Christian-oriented Provident Films. “You have to keep that balance.”

If this year’s slate of biblical movies brings box office manna down from heaven, similar projects are bound to follow: Will Smith is developing a Cain-and-Abel script, Warner Bros. has a Pontius Pilate movie in the works, and Sony is shepherding a David-and-Goliath film. But however these films fare, many regard them as a healthy step forward for two communities that once seemed locked in endless cultural warfare. When the same studio releases Son of God within months of a horror flick called Devil’s Due, there’s clearly some lamb-lying-down-with-the-lion stuff going on.

“The good news is both Hollywood and the faith community have a long-horizon view now,” Bock says. “There’s a recognition on both sides that this is going to be a learning process. It’s going to take some time, but it’s all going in the right direction.” And that’s grounds for a quiet “amen.”


Making an Exodus
Ridley Scott’s Exodus (out Dec. 12) will tackle all the biblical set pieces — the plagues, the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea — but Christian Bale plays Moses as a swarthy action hero who leads the Israelites out of Egypt. Think Gladiator, not The Ten Commandments. “He’s a fascinating character when you get away from the Sunday-school idea,” Bale says. “He’s a surprising character for me, and very extreme. [With Moses] there are no half measures.”

Scott says the film, shot in 3-D, will focus on Moses’ achievements as well as his humanity — early on, he even questions his faith. “Was he agnostic? Was he a person who simply believed in dust-to-dust and ashes-to-ashes?” Scott says. “Was he cynical about the idea of an afterlife? We address all those things.” —Nicole Sperling

Son of God Rises
Between adapting the books of Genesis and Revelation for last year’s History channel miniseries The Bible, producer Mark Burnett had an epiphany: Jesus deserved more than a 10-part treatment on basic cable. “I realized the story really should be on the big screen,” says Burnett (Survivor), who made the smash miniseries with his wife, Roma Downey (who plays Jesus’ mother, Mary, in both projects). “So we shot much more and spent the money to finish off a feature film without any green light.”

The result is Son of God (PG-13, out Feb. 28), the first biopic of Jesus since 2004’s The Passion of the Christ. Burnett and Downey recently embarked on an eight-week tour of U.S. churches to screen the film. “There’s a whole new generation that’s ready to see this,” says Burnett, who has already begun work on a 12-part sequel to The Bible that will air on NBC in 2015. “We are publicly Christian, so this is our community. This is their story.” —Lynette Rice

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