In the wake of 'Gump,' the entertainment industry gets spiritual and the profits are heaven-sent

  • Movie

Aaron Spelling is on fire. The man responsible for bringing television some of its sauciest hymns to the flesh — Models Inc., Melrose Place, Beverly Hills, 90210 — is suddenly boiling over with the power of the spirit.

”This year Tori, my little daughter, came over to the house and said, ‘I’ve got a concept for a series, Dad!’ ” says Spelling, rolling with the enthusiasm of a Pentecostal preacher. ”And she had a series about a teenage angel. It’s so strange what is happening! I don’t know what it is. Maybe,” he offers, ”we’re all just looking for angels.”

The veteran producer isn’t just looking for seraphim — he’s banking on them. Spelling’s new syndicated series, Heaven Help Us, is only a slight variation on his daughter’s theme: It follows the paranormal adventures of two babelicious newlyweds who, after a fatal plane crash en route to their honeymoon, find out that they’re going to have to earn their wings through a series of good deeds.

Their guide? ”Super Angel” Ricardo Montalban.

If it seems a mite weird that Spelling, the same guy who once blessed America with the heavenly bodies of Charlie’s Angels, is now giving more marketing weight to the ”heavenly” than to the ”bodies,” consider the climate. In a year when the TV airwaves are aflutter with winged spirits, the best- seller lists are clogged with divine manuscripts and visions of the afterlife, and gangsta rappers are elbowed aside on the pop charts for the hushed prayers of Benedictine monks, you don’t have to look hard to find that pop culture is going gaga for spirituality.

”It is a huge awakening,” intones the prophet Spelling. ”A huge awakening! And I think we’re going to see more of it instead of less.”

He may be right — but then again, how much more can we take? These days, the Supreme Being seems to have His magic fingers in everything.

Of course, actually defining Spirituality ’94 presents a challenge. Seekers of the day are apt to peel away the tough theological stuff and pluck out the most dulcet elements of faith, coming up with a soothing sampler of Judeo-Christian imagery (monks and angels, sans the righteous anger and guilt), Eastern meditation, self-help lingo, a vaguely conservative craving for ”virtue,” and a loopy New Age pursuit of ”peace.” This happy free-for-all, appealing to Baptists and stargazers alike, comes off more like Forrest Gump’s ubiquitous ”boxa choclits” than like any real system of belief. You never know what you’re gonna get.

Lately, in fact, Hollywood’s version of the Shroud of Turin could be Forrest Gump itself. With that film chugging toward a whopping $300 million take at the box office — and spinning off both the resurrection of Winston Groom’s 1986 novel and its own book of soul-enriching proverbs (piously called Gumpisms) — it’s no surprise that some of Hollywood’s luminaries are starting to see Tom Hanks’ good-natured moron as the Messiah. ”I got a call from my grandmother in Brooklyn on Saturday,” says Gump coproducer Wendy Finerman. ”She told me that the rabbi said at temple that we all have to be much kinder to each other, just like Forrest Gump.”

Thus inspired, publishers and producers are stepping up the quest for the next soulful blockbuster. Joan of Arc is once again a hot movie subject, intriguing the likes of Winona Ryder; Michael Tolkin’s darkly comic movie about L.A. seekers, The New Age, just hit theaters; and God’s Army — a ”theological thriller” about a renegade pack of angels, starring Eric Stoltz and Christopher Walken — is in the can.

Of the film projects in development, would you believe:

*On the Wings of Giants. A TV journalist makes his way into the mountains of Tibet in this $40 million tale of ”monks, metaphysics, and love” from Douglas Day Stewart, screenwriter of the upcoming Scarlet Letter.
*The Postman. The tale of a postapocalyptic mailman who develops a messianic following. (Big surprise: Forrest Gump‘s Steve Tisch is one of this film’s producers.)
*Paradise, Kansas. One Hollywood producer calls this script about storm trackers and a teenage boy with the gift of prophecy ”half action picture, half religious picture.”

As for the tube, Spelling’s Heaven Help Us is already fighting for attention with another series about do-gooding seraphim, CBS’ Touched by an Angel. Meanwhile, there’s NBC’s upcoming The Other Side, which promises to usher the spirit world into the realm of daytime talk shows. There are specials like PBS’ In Search of Angels and NBC’s sequel to Angels: The Mysterious Messengers, last season’s ratings bonanza. As for do-gooders of the mortal variety, there’s Christy, a CBS series about a young woman who heads into the Smokey Mountains to teach at a missionary school. A surprise hit last spring, the show will return mid-season.

Meanwhile, the cable world has the Faith & Values Channel, a 24-hour blitz of spiritual programming launched in 1988 that now beams into 20 million households — a daunting feat in an industry glutted with start-up channels.

”People are searching, and we help them on their spiritual pilgrimage,” says Jeff Weber, executive vice president of an interfaith group that programs 16 hours of the Faith & Values day. ”You may know the avenue, but it’s hard to find the signposts — and you can’t ask for a more public medium than television to do the job.”

True, but more than anywhere else, it’s the publishing business that’s in the midst of a celestial explosion. Books about sexual healing and swimming with the Wall Street sharks may have captured readers in the ’70s and ’80s, respectively, but the automatic winner in the ’90s is any page-turner that promises to soothe a battered soul. ”Almost anything with the word soul in it sells like crazy,” explains Peggy Taylor, editor of New Age Journal. Quietly nestled among the Rush Limbaughs and Howard Sterns on the best-seller lists are mystical volumes like Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul and Soul Mates, Betty J. Eadie’s Embraced by the Light (the tale of a Midwestern mother’s near-death experience), Dannion Brinkley’s Saved by the Light (another hot-selling testament to life after death), politico William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, and James Redfield’s novel The Celestine Prophecy, the story of a spiritual quest in Peru that’s racked up a million and a half in hardcover sales. Taylor’s mag has called The Celestine Prophecy, which Redfield originally sold out of the trunk of his car until Warner Books snapped it up, ”the commercial publishing event of 1994.”

Heck, even author Patti Davis just polished off her own spiritual memoir, Angels Don’t Die. The book, currently being shopped around to publishing houses, chronicles the spiritual relationship between the Playboy poser and her dad, former President Ronald Reagan. ”I never doubted that I could just talk to God and get answers, and I got that from my father,” Davis says. ”Actually, what I got from my father is the foundation for all the work that I’ve done spiritually in my life since.”

As for those who might cringe at her easy leap from Playboy to prayer, Davis says, ”I think it’s time that people got off that. I mean, you can pose nude and still talk to God.”

There are smaller triumphs, too. As spiritual tracts and pocket-size meditation books battle their way from the crystals-and-incense fringe into the mainstream, publishers are finding a market hungry for heretofore obscure tomes like The Blooming of a Lotus, Awakening the Life Force, and Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar. ”One of our titles, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, has sold 205,000 copies,” marvels Robin Seaman, associate marketing director at Harper San Francisco. ”It was written by a Tibetan monk and it’s been an unbelievable hit.”

Even the music biz is getting into the soul game. The gargantuan success of Chant — a double-platinum collection of Gregorian chants by the reclusive Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos — has led to spin-offs: Chant Noel, an album of Christmas chants, is due in stores this month, and Angel Records, in a cross-promotion with Bell Tower books, is prepping a book about chants due in November.

No wonder the Pope himself is getting dragged into the marketing mix. Over the past year, His Holiness has (1) hooked up with literary power agent Mort Janklow, (2) churned out a hotly awaited theological tract that arrives in October, and (3) announced plans to spread the gospel with — gulp — a new album. The double CD, cut entirely in Latin, stars the leader of the Roman Catholic Church saying the rosary and singing hymns. It’s already a monster hit in Spain.

Not all the soul-shaking is of the Christian brand. The Beastie Boys enlighten their fans with ”Bodhisattva Vow,” a Buddhist rap, on their recent album Ill Communication; the lyrics recently found their way into the pages of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, which has seen its circulation blossom to around 40,000 since its debut in 1991. ”I think it’s extraordinary,” says editor in chief Helen Tworkov, ”to have actual words of the Buddha in magazines that are selling in the malls.”

And then there’s America’s foremost trend-o-meter, Madonna. The high priestess of carnal delight — she who gave us the Erotica album and the Sex book —is gearing up for the release of ”Secret,” a new single that USA Today describes as ”a song about self-empowering spirituality inspired by Indian Hindu philosopher Mother Meera.”

Is nothing sacred? Or, to put it another way, is everything? ”This is kind of a mini-Great Awakening, filtered through the big media machine,” says novelist and critic Walter Kirn, whose work often deals with religious currents in American life. ”This kind of stuff has been happening all through the century, but the media has finally found a way to standardize the product: angels, near-death experiences, past lives. (The media) is giving it that gloss it never really had.”

Indeed, when asked to make sense of the constantly expanding spiritual boom, folks can conjure up more theories than a Jesuit:

*The millennium approaches. As we hurtle toward the portentous year 2000, people are bracing for some sort of spiritual revelation. ”History would indicate that this happens whenever you come to a significant date — and we’re arriving at a pretty big one,” says Care of the Soul author Thomas Moore. ”It’s like when somebody turns 50 and they begin thinking about things that are really important to them.”
*Church is boring, but the ”search for meaning” is cool. ”This is not religion that we’re talking about,” says Sydny Miner, executive editor of Simon & Schuster’s trade paperback division. ”What you’re talking about is, ‘We don’t want to go back to church, but we want the security, and we want to feel like we’re being taken care of.’ ” James Morrow (whose satirical novel Towing Jehovah tells of a supertanker captain ordered to haul God’s body to the Arctic) agrees: ”Mainstream churches no longer seem to answer people’s needs. Everybody’s flailing about. Some people land in the New Age sector, others turn to fundamentalist Christianity, and others turn to the self-help section and find all these books on angels.”
*It’s time to pay for the greed and excess of the last decade. ”Now that the ’80s are really over, we are all like repentant sinners,” says author and filmmaker Michael Tolkin, who directed The Rapture and The New Age. ”No one prays to God like someone with a severe hangover.”
*Life sucks. The brave new world of technology — fax machines, interactive TV, information highways — can’t cloud the truth: The world’s a mess, and daily life is mercilessly drab. Spelling sees the situation in Old Testament terms: ”Can we show something besides the Menendez brothers? The O.J. Simpson thing? The crazy thing with the little girl and Joey Buttafuoco?” he groans. ”We’re quickly approaching Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Whatever the reason, that old-time search for meaning has caught a second wind — or a 200th. ”We are made to have that longing for spiritual experience,” says author Arianna Huffington, wife of California’s GOP Senate candidate Michael Huffington. Once linked to controversial cult leader John-Roger, she proposes in her new book, The Fourth Instinct: The Call of the Soul, that we’re on the brink of spiritual revolution. ”It’s happening now because we’ve tried everything else, and it hasn’t worked.”

But not everyone is convinced that folks are getting real spiritual nourishment from the current crop of shows, books, and CDs. To some, much of what is being reaped from monks or Gump or Peruvian manuscripts has the sweet, fluffy, and ultimately empty consistency of angel food cake. ”I find it kind of depressing,” says Morrow. ”It seems to me a rather low point in the history of the word spiritual that people are so willing to buy into Embraced by the Light. I like the words spirit and spiritual, but they’re being utterly trivialized by this publishing phenomenon.”

Which doesn’t mean the phenomenon shows any signs of slowing down. Angel Records, the label that brought you the Monks, is hoping to repeat its success with a platter of songs by Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century nun and mystic. ”Her music is incredible,” says Angel president Steve Murphy. ”We think it’s going to be pretty successful.” In a feeding frenzy for soul food, publishers are getting used to doing power lunches with psychics, reincarnated spirits, and Hawaiian shamans. ”It’s a phenomenon to be reckoned with,” says Harper’s Seaman. ”In all shapes and forms — from Jungian, to mystical, to angels — publishers are really searching for the next blockbusters. We’re looking at individuals who we think may have personal spiritual stories to tell.

”I don’t think it’s crested,” she adds. ”I don’t think we’ve seen the height of this at all.”

Of course not. There’re six years left till the millennium.

Forrest Gump

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 141 minutes
  • Robert Zemeckis