''Angels & Demons'': Hollywood and the Church -- ''The Da Vinci Code'' sequel sparks renewed discussion of Hollywood's relationship with Christian audiences

Angels & Demons

  • Movie

It’s one thing for some nerdy fanboy who lives in his parents’ basement to show his enthusiasm for The Dark Knight by dressing up as the Joker. But for a pastor to stand before his congregation in full Joker regalia, complete with ratty wig and gruesome makeup, and deliver a sermon on good and evil — that’s something else altogether. Last summer, in a radical attempt to engage his young congregants at the Christ Chapel Mountaintop Church in Manassas, Va., pastor Rob Seagears did exactly that. Each Sunday, Seagears dressed up as a character from that weekend’s top-grossing film and used the movie — no matter how vulgar, violent, or ungodly it seemed — as the basis for a discussion of Christian morality. One Sunday, he was Indiana Jones. Another, he rode up to the pulpit on a motorcycle in a Batman costume. The weekend Tropic Thunder opened, he showed up wearing camouflage and wielding a machete. The idea, for Seagears, was not to rail against the corrupting virus of Hollywood, as church leaders have in the past, but to transmute that virus into a spiritual vaccine to inoculate his flock. ”Pop culture is the language they speak,” he says. ”This was about meeting them where they are and trying to build a bridge back to God.”

Seagears hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll repeat his experiment this year (titles like Terminator Salvation and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen certainly seem ripe for the picking), but if he does, he may face a dilemma when the adaptation of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel Angels & Demons opens on May 15. Brown’s work has long been criticized by many in the Christian community who see it as a frontal attack on their faith. Three years ago, Ron Howard’s adaptation of Brown’s The Da Vinci Code — in which Tom Hanks’ Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon unmasks a Vatican-led conspiracy to cover up the lost bloodline of Jesus — unleashed a hurricane of controversy on its way to earning $758 million in worldwide grosses. For a pastor, dressing up as Robert Langdon would take major chutzpah.

The truth is, though, Angels & Demons seems unlikely to stir up as much controversy as its predecessor. The film has drawn protest from Catholic League president William Donohue, who charges that it’s filled with falsehoods designed to undermine the church — but so far it’s been a brush fire, not a global conflagration. In large part, this is because the story of Angels & Demons — which centers on Langdon’s attempt to foil an apparent plot by a secret society of scientists called the Illuminati to blow up the Vatican — is inherently less offensive to Christians than The Da Vinci Code, which questioned the very divinity of Jesus. ”The Da Vinci Code hit a real nerve,” says Howard, who returned to direct the next film. ”There’s another nerve being struck with Angels & Demons, but it’s not as supercharged.”

Still, Angels & Demons arrives at a delicate moment in the history of relations between Hollywood and the church. After years of often bitter struggle — stoked by films like The Last Temptation of Christ and Dogma — the two sides seemed to be heading toward a new partnership in the wake of the 2004 smash The Passion of the Christ. The staggering $370 million box office haul for Mel Gibson’s epic was a come-to-Jesus moment for Hollywood. Studios made a great show of stepping up their efforts to reach the Christian audience, with movies such as the Chronicles of Narnia series and The Nativity Story that might once have been regarded as too overtly religious. But while the studios have cultivated a faith-based home-video market and honed their ability to market to church leaders, many of their efforts to connect with Christians have flopped. ”After The Passion, there was a gold rush,” says Phil Vischer, co-creator of the Christian-themed cartoon franchise VeggieTales. ”Hollywood thought, ‘This is great! We can market movies to pastors and they will get up on Sunday and tell their whole congregations to go see them! It’s a new button we can push, and money will fall from the sky!’ It was doomed from the get-go.”

Meanwhile, the Christian community — never a monolithic entity to begin with — has become more of a moving target than ever. Young Christians are embracing mainstream movies — not just blockbusters like WALL-E and The Dark Knight but unlikely films like Juno, about a pregnant teen who chooses not to have an abortion, and Lars and the Real Girl, about a churchgoing man who falls in love with a blowup doll — that might have horrified their grandparents. For the subset of the Christian audience who want to see Hollywood movies but are concerned about crude language, violence, or sexual content, ClearPlay DVD players, equipped with filtering software, enable users to automatically skip over potentially offensive scenes. Though such editing has been criticized by Hollywood and has been the subject of lawsuits (a 2006 ruling forced four companies, including the Utah-based CleanFlicks, to stop selling edited movies), ClearPlay DVD players are now widely available and carry the blessing of the evangelical group Focus on the Family.

But while both sides of the culture-war divide have inched closer to one another, Hollywood still hasn’t quite figured out how to crack the Christian code. ”With a snap of his fingers, [megachurch pastor] Rick Warren could deliver hundreds of thousands of people to a movie,” says Matthew Crouch, producer of the 1999 Christian film The Omega Code. ”Hollywood is trying to figure out how to reach them. But how do you get Rick Warren to sign on to a script? That’s the six-million-dollar question Hollywood’s trying to answer. But they don’t know how easy it is to offend that faith. You have to realize you’re playing with fire.”

Back in February 2004, The Passion of the Christ rolled into theaters with Jewish groups railing against the film as anti-Semitic and many in Hollywood murmuring that the firestorm would incinerate Gibson’s career. But when it became the year’s most stunning box office phenomenon, Hollywood opened its eyes to a vast market of Christian moviegoers just waiting to be tapped. Suddenly, studio executives, agents, and filmmakers began asking, in effect, What would Jesus greenlight? ”Hollywood started calling, saying ‘What have you got? Anything Christian?”’ says Jerry B. Jenkins, coauthor of the best-selling Left Behind series, fictional thrillers based on the Rapture that have sold more than 65 million copies. ”This was the hot trend: ‘Christianity sells. Anything faith-based will work.”’

There had been Christian-themed blockbusters before, going back to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 smash The Ten Commandments, but over the years the genre had fallen out of vogue. Post-Passion, studios ramped up faith-based subsidiaries, such as 20th Century Fox’s Fox Faith, targeting churchgoing audiences with direct-to-DVD movies on Christian themes. Then Disney launched C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, with its undercurrent of Christian allegory, while New Line mounted its own reverent Bible tale, The Nativity Story.

But The Passion of the Christ — an expensive film financed outside the studio system and fueled by an explosive blend of star power, controversy, and a grassroots, church-focused marketing effort unprecedented in scope and sophistication — was not a formula easily replicated. ”Anybody who thought studios were going to come out and make other $115 million donkey-and-sandal movies didn’t know what they were talking about,” says Jonathan Bock, founder and president of the faith-based marketing firm Grace Hill Media. ”They haven’t made another Titanic, either.”

For all of the excitement on both sides, there remained a disconnect between Hollywood and the Christian community — something some Christians say is inevitable when, say, the studio that produced Freddy vs. Jason turns around and offers The Nativity Story. Though that 2006 Christmas release seemed to be tailor-made for the Passion crowd (because, in fact, it was), it largely failed to connect. Some say Christian moviegoers were turned off after learning, shortly before the film’s release, that its unwed teenage star, Keisha Castle-Hughes, was pregnant. Others say The Nativity Story was just lame. ”It was dull,” says Vischer. ”Frankly, [a movie about the Nativity] doesn’t sound all that exciting to Christians because we know the story intimately: A baby is born, and there’s some animals. We’ve seen it in church every Christmas. Do I really want to spend 40 bucks to take my kids to watch that with popcorn? Ehh, I’m not so sure.”

At times, Hollywood has managed to capture the Christian market — never more so than with Disney’s $292 million-grossing hit The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which appealed to Christians as a faith-inflected fable and to secular audiences as a big, cool movie with a witch and a talking lion. But in other instances, studio marketers have proved tone-deaf, as when Universal tried to lure churchgoers to its vaguely faith-themed big-budget comedy Evan Almighty, in which Steve Carell is commanded by God to build an ark. ”The studio was in an untenable position,” says one veteran marketing consultant. ”They put Steve Carell naked in a bunch of ads, trying to get fans of The Office, and that made all the Christian mommies go, ‘Hmm. I don’t think I’ll take my 9-year-old to that.”’ In some cases, films that have nothing whatsoever to do with religion have been marketed to church leaders simply because they felt inspirational. ”Things have gotten pitched to pastors that don’t make any sense at all,” says Vischer. ”Rocky Balboa was pitched to pastors with a devotional guide! It’s lunacy.”

Meanwhile, smaller-scale films made by and for the Christian faithful, which have long existed under the mainstream radar, have started to break through to wider success. Last year’s Kirk Cameron drama Fireproof, about a firefighter who saves his marriage by renewing his faith in God, cost just $1 million and grossed $33 million. ”With the faith audience, they need to understand the heart behind the film,” says Kris Fuhr, vice president of Provident Films, the Sony subsidiary that produced Fireproof. ”Does it have to be a sermon or an altar call? No. But it has to be something that inspires them. They see we believe in the film, and they trust us.”

When it comes to faith, that trust is not so easily earned by bottom-line-driven Hollywood. ”The values of Hollywood and the church overlap sometimes, but they’re completely different models,” says Simon Swart, an executive VP at Fox Faith. ”Hollywood is very commercially minded, whereas the church is all about values. That’s the constant challenge.”

Hollywood and the Christian community may have made some strides to find common ground, but the Catholic League’s Donohue hasn’t gotten the memo. In his mind, not only is faith not accorded respect by Hollywood, it’s scorned on a regular basis by an industry he once said is ”controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity.” (He later said he regretted that characterization.) Donohue is speaking out loudly against Angels & Demons. He knows he may only help boost ticket sales (even a Vatican official reportedly warned of the ”boomerang effect” of protest). But he points to 2007’s The Golden Compass — which many Christians believed to be antireligious — as a case where protests made a difference. The film fared so poorly that a sequel was canceled. ”There’s a risk involved, but it’s a risk I’ll take,” Donohue says.

Having already incurred the wrath of many of the world’s one billion Catholics with The Da Vinci Code, Howard isn’t surprised by Donohue’s charges. But that doesn’t mean he accepts them. Last month, after Donohue attacked Angels & Demons in an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Howard fired back on the Huffington Post. ”Our movie gives Donohue a hell of a soapbox to stand on,” the director says now. ”We always just ignored it, but for him to imply that we’re on a mission to ridicule or damage the Catholic Church — it’s important to be on the record that that’s not what I had in mind at all.”

Then again, the makers of Angels & Demons didn’t go out of their way to court the Christian community. ”’Here’s your Angels & Demons [church] flier”’ producer Brian Grazer says with a dry laugh. ”No, I don’t think we’ve done that.” Sony distribution head Jeff Blake puts it this way: ”Angels & Demons is a thriller. It’s just a big summer movie that you’re trying to get everybody into. It was certainly never approached as: How do you market this specifically to the Church? We welcome them to see it, and if there’s controversy, so be it.” For his part, Brown — whose next installment in the Langdon series, The Lost Symbol, will be published this fall — insists his work is not theology. ”My goal in writing these novels has only ever been to create stories I find personally captivating,” he tells EW via e-mail. ”These are fictional stories that generate discussions on important issues, which, in my view, can only be positive.”

The fact remains that whatever efforts have been made to bridge the gap in the years since The Passion, the flare-ups between Hollywood and the Christian community are still useful for both sides. Controversy — whether it’s invited or not — is free publicity. As long as that age-old dynamic holds true, it’s hard to imagine Hollywood and the church lying down together like the lion and the lamb.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Jensen, Lynette Rice, Sean Smith, Nicole Sperling, and Adam B. Vary)

What’s All The Fuss?

Angels & Demons is less divisive than The Da Vinci Code but some Catholics still object to the novel’s plot. Here’s why:

War on science
Brown’s story depicts a church that has long opposed the march of science — to the point of systematically murdering scientists.

Papal politics
In Angels & Demons, some within the Vatican are so bent on attaining ultimate power that they may be willing to kill for it.

Secrets and lies
The Catholic League’s Donohue says Angels & Demons wildly exaggerates the history of the Illuminati. The secret society, he says, existed only for about a decade, not centuries, and Galileo was never a member.

Angels & Demons
  • Movie
  • 138 minutes