The Nativity Story

Covering the 2006 movie "The Nativity Story," about the story of Mary and Joseph
and their journey together as they bring the Messiah into the world.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

"Nativity" DVD Releases 3/20/07

Christianity Today's Mark Moring takes a look at "The Nativity Story" three months after its theatrical debut, as it releases on DVD (click here to purchase a copy):

Nativity Comes Home

Just three months after an unimpressive theatrical run, The Nativity Story is now out on DVD, looking for a second "life" at video stores and in home libraries.

By Mark Moring posted 03/20/07

After a disappointing theatrical run in December and early January, The Nativity Story releases to DVD today—a tale of the birth of Jesus just weeks before Christians worldwide observe his death and resurrection at Easter.

"I think it's good timing," director Catherine Hardwicke told CT Movies. "And I'm excited that a lot of people are going to be seeing it for the first time. So many people have told me they missed it in the theater, and that they can't wait to see it."

The "can't wait to see it" part of that observation is good news for New Line Cinema, which spent about $65 million making and marketing the film, but only earning about $46 million ($38 million domestically) in its theatrical run. The studio will likely more than recoup its losses in DVD sales, especially as they plan to release a two-disc special edition just before Christmas.

But it's the first part of Hardwicke's observation—that so many people "missed it" in theaters—that had New Line execs (and other Hollywood bigwigs who were watching closely) wondering, "Where are all the Christians?" They weren't expecting the monster numbers of The Passion of the Christ ($371 million domestically, $612 million worldwide), but they certainly hoped to do better at the cineplex.

Said Hardwicke, "We hoped that more people would see it, of course."

A January story in The Los Angeles Times explored possible reasons why the film didn't do very well. Laurie Foos, a student a Fuller Theological Seminary, told The Times she tried to see The Nativity Story on Christmas Day, but the local theater had already dropped it. Foos said she might have tried to see it sooner (it opened Dec. 1), but hadn't heard anything about the film in the Christian community: "I wish there had been more awareness," she said. "It was lacking that kind of 'Oh my gosh, you have to go see that movie' factor."

Hardwicke said she wished there had been more time to promote that "oh my gosh" factor. But New Line execs green-lighted a rush job, opting to push it into theaters less than a year after writer Mike Rich finished his script. Hardwicke and her team barely had eight months to make the movie, leaving very little time for marketing and publicity—especially to the Christian market and through churches.

Small 'publicity window'
Hardwicke noted that director Mel Gibson had finished The Passion at least six months before its release, and thus had time to fly around the world promoting it to—and screening it for—church leaders. They didn't have that kind of "publicity window" for The Nativity Story.

"Mel put in a beautiful effort going to so many churches and getting people excited," Hardwicke said. "But he had at least six months, and we had something like 25 days. New Line knew that would be an issue in January [2006] when they decided to release the film in December. I think they were trying to find ways to overcome that short amount of time [for publicity], and I guess they didn't quite do it."

When asked if she wished they had slated the release for December 2007 instead of 2006, thus giving her twice as long to make the movie—and giving the studio much more time to promote it—Hardwicke laughed and said, "I was the prime advocate of that two-year plan! I was like, 'Can't we do it next Christmas?' I think it would have been nicer to have maybe a little bit more relaxed schedule, you know?"

Co-producer Wyck Godfrey of Temple Hill Productions (New Line contracted with him to produce Nativity) agreed.

"From a marketing standpoint, we didn't get to the audience in an aggressive enough way to build an urgency to see the film," Godfrey said. "The box office tells you that."

Like Hardwicke, Godfrey noted the difference in the lead time for The Passion as opposed to Nativity. "Mel was screening The Passion for six months, we were screening ours for one," Godfrey said.

"That certainly has a big effect on people knowing about the movie—just plain awareness. There were definitely a lot of church leaders I spoke to after the fact who said, 'We hadn't been reached.' So, we didn't get to everybody."

Asked if he was surprised to hear that from church leaders, Godfrey said, "I was and I wasn't. I mean, the truth is that about a month in advance of the film's release, you know that you can't catch up; you realize you're not getting to everybody. And by that point, there's only so many people to reach. You can't save the movie a week ahead of it opening. You really need to have been ahead of it by two or three months."

But Godfrey said he has no regrets about how it was handled.

"By about December 20th, I quit thinking about it," he said. "You can kill yourself obsessing about how it could have done better, but you just need to move forward. And the truth is, we remain very proud of the movie, and we think those who saw it—and will see it on DVD—will find something special.

"We don't have any regrets. We really feel like the movie works. And you can't exclusively make movies for commercial reasons. You really do need to make them from the heart, and because you're passionate about them."

Godfrey said the good news is that he and co-producer Marty Bowen—both Christians—feel like the table has been set for more faith-based films from major studios (New Line produced the Lord of the Rings films), and any lessons they've learned from The Nativity Story can be applied to future projects.

"I think we've built a strong foundation," Godfrey said. "I feel like this will bear more fruit down the line for more faith-based films. And I feel confident that we've made relationships around the country with church leaders, and next time we'll be better prepared with our marketing plan.

"We feel like there's enough of an audience that does want these movies. Not necessarily Bible stories, but inspirational movies. Our instinct right now is that the next one we do might be more of a contemporary faith-based movie."

Godfrey said he's had "numerous conversations" with New Line CEO Bob Shaye about The Nativity Story's performance. "His evaluation was kind of like a shrug of the shoulders," said Godfrey, "and that you never know exactly why a movie didn't become a huge hit or not. But he's very proud of the movie, and said they want to make more movies for the faith-based audience. It's not like The Nativity Story made them say, 'All right, we gave it a shot, and we're done with that.' They actually came out of it more emboldened by it."

Joining the holiday favoritesHardwicke said she's excited about the DVD because it grants the film a "new life" after its theatrical release. And she hopes that life will endure for generations, as families pull it out year after year along with the likes of It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, and other holiday favorites.

She also thinks it'll translate well from the big screen to the small.

"In a way, our film has a big quality in some of those beautiful, amazing shots in Morocco and the desert," she said. "But we do think people will be able to enjoy it in a more personal way at home, because it's an intimate story of two people [Joseph and Mary] and their struggle with their faith and their hope and that they're doing the right thing."

Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

BeliefNet Nominates "Nativity" for Best Spiritual Film of 2006

'The Nativity Story'
Nominee: Best Spiritual Film of 2006


"The Nativity" is the most authentic and real movie yet made about the birth of the One who is the source of all spirituality. Further, it brings to life a mostly-Biblical picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and many of the other characters who have (for many, especially young people) yet to jump off the pages of the Bible or the flannel board.

"The Nativity" is neither the over-the-top depiction of holier-than-thou caricatures nor the cheesy over-evangelism of Christian media. Much of the film is more understated and muted than the typical church Christmas celebration and may challenge some of the pedestal-ized notions we have of the Biblical characters. It makes the drama of the day real, and the miracle of Jesus' humanity and deity come to light. Where "The Passion of the Christ" focused on Jesus' character, "The Nativity" focuses us on his identity.

In our day of respect for different spiritual paths, it's still important to remember that almost all of them circle back to the search for who God is, how He is relevant in our lives and what our response can be to experience spiritual power in our lives. "The Nativity" takes us there, without telling us where (or if) to go to church.

-- Douglas Howe


The story of birth of Christ is at once both a sweeping historical epic and a tender, divinely appointed love story, which is exactly what makes the tale such a challenge to bring to the big screen. It's an almost unrealistic task to try to fit years of religious persecution, wise men, shepherds, prophetic angels, and an virgin birth into a coherent two-hour film, which is exactly why "The Nativity Story" fails as a spiritual cinematic tour-de-force. Instead, is simply a messy, mostly accurate, hodge-podge retelling of a miraculous moment in time.

While I agree with other critics that by far the best moments of the movie are the touching moments between Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem, there were certainly far more times in this arranged marriage that could have been deeply and beautifully explored beyond the bits and pieces we witness on the screen.

On the other hand, the historical perspective of this film fails as well. I wasn't looking for the blood and guts of "The Passion of the Christ," and the movie certainly never made me believe that Herod's murderous search for the Messiah ever put Mary and Joseph in any grave danger. Maybe that's partly because the wise men were portrayed something like the Three Stooges and Herod was a one-dimensional cartoon style villain.

In the end, I realize that "The Nativity" may be a family friendly, Christmas-pageant kind of treatment of the Christ's birth, which some Christians find comforting. However, I think declaring this movie to be one of the most inspirational of the year would be another example of telling Hollywood that, as an audience, Christians will continue to settle for mediocre, safe storytelling instead of demanding deeper, richer stories that shed new light on our humanity and our faith.

-- Kris Rasmussen


Historical Authenticity & Deep Spirituality
More than most, this movie must address the widely varying expectations of its audience. Some will come to it hoping to see their own very precisely imagined versions of the Nativity story brought to life. Some will come to it as worship; others will come for drama, or history, or curiosity.

I came to the movie open to, or at least respectful of, all of these expectations, but with few of my own as well. I was twice removed from becoming very involved in the story, first because of my obligation to be objective as a journalist and a critic, and second because I am not very knowledgeable about the Nativity story and do not believe in the divinity of Jesus because I am Jewish. Even so, I was very moved by the deeply spiritual nature of the film and by the story, which is, after all, the story of a very young Jewish couple who must respond to the most extraordinary set of events imaginable.

I liked the authentic feel of the historical detail. Oscar Isaacs, who plays Joseph, told me in an interview that there were two keys to playing Joseph. First were the hands. Isaacs said he spent a month using Biblical-era tools to build the house that Joseph builds for Mary. He wanted to look at his hands and see Joseph's calluses. Second was the sole word the New Testament uses to describe Joseph, "righteous." "Being righteous in that case does not mean following the law," he told me, "It means love and humility and faith. He's in love with Mary ,and he believes in her. Where does it come from, that selfless, humble, love? The most amazing act of humility is the essence of the story, how God made himself flesh in the most humble of ways with the most humble people. Jesus was not born to kings or to wealthy people but to Mary and Joseph, poor but righteous." This is the part of the story I found very touching and powerful.

-- Nell Minow

Faithful, but Failing to Challenge
New Line Cinema offered viewers something unseen since the fifties. "The Nativity Story" echoes the biblical epics that once ruled the big screen. It includes beautiful vistas and a stirring soundtrack. "The Nativity Story" faithfully recounts the first Christmas, from Mary's encounter with an angel through the arduous journey to a stable in Bethlehem. Director Catherine Hardwicke demonstrates her mastery of production design, via lavish recreations of Mary's village and first century Jewish life. The international cast, led by New Zealand's Keisha Castle-Hughes keeps "The Nativity Story" from falling into white washed depictions of a Middle Eastern setting.

Yet, audiences responded with comparative indifference. Perhaps the filmmakers' commitment to a respectful story drained both controversy and enthusiasm from "The Nativity Story." We go to movies to experience far away places and unimagined dangers. But the edges of "The Nativity Story" were so softened that it resembled a greeting card rather than genuine human drama. Sainthood can only be portrayed in contrast to real threats and considerable evil. The baby Jesus never felt endangered. The Virgin Mary came across as more resigned than troubled.

Cecil B. DeMille always gave filmgoers a taste of sin and salvation. His epics titillated before they inspired. "The Nativity Story" takes the high road, never falling for the cheap thrill. While religious filmgoers claim they want their faith respected, the box office disappointment accompanying "The Nativity Story" suggests they'd rather have their faith challenged, then affirmed.

"The Nativity Story" offers a glimpse of Joseph's dilemma. It suggests how much confusion may have blinded Zechariah or Joseph prior to the birth of their sons. But lest the pioneers of the faith come off as all too human, "The Nativity Story" stops short of putting flesh and blood choices upon the founders of the Christian faith. Yet, isn't that what the Incarnation is all about: God with us, even in our brokenness?

-- Craig Detweiler

Friday, January 12, 2007

Infuze interviews Mychael Danna (composer)

Mychael Danna has been scoring films since 1987, most recently working on such titles as The Nativity Story, Little Miss Sunshine and Capote. Having worked with phenomenal directors such as Denzel Washington, Ang Lee and Joel Schumacher, Danna is one of the top of his field. In this Infuze exclusive, Danna speaks about his process as a composer and what it's like to work on such a film as The Nativity Story.

Robin: Tell us about your process as a composer and what that typically looks like.

Mychael: The general way that it works is that the composer often is brought in at the script phase, and the production will want to get your ideas of what you're thinking of, musically. Generally, at the same time that they're shooting the film, they're already editing it as well. Then the composer starts looking at footage pretty early on.

The musical process really runs parallel to the editing process, especially on bigger films, and certainly on The Nativity Story, because it was a pretty compact schedule. We literally wrapped shooting in early August, and the film is in theaters as of early December, so that's a very short [post-production] schedule. They started the real editing in early August and ran until the end of September, and that's exactly when I began recording -- the end of September. So I'm unable to wait until they're finished cutting the picture. I have to write as they're shaping the film.

It's a real challenge; it's kind of a moving target. A very dynamic situation where the composer is writing music for a film that's changing every day. You can write a piece of music for a scene that's a minute and a half long, and then the next day it's two minutes long, twenty seconds long, or it's gone, or it used to be at the beginning of the film and now it's at the end. All of those things happen. That's one of the greatest challenges of writing music for film. To add to all the other challenges, a film is very often a very unstable thing. You're just trying to get an idea of what the film is, and you've got to be writing music for it at the same time.

That was the case on Nativity, where there's something like eighty-five minutes of music in the final film.

And how long is the movie?

About... ninety minutes. (Laughs.)


You really have to start early for this kind of a film, because there's only so much you can write a day. Two or three minutes, I'd say you can write in a day, which is actually a lot. So it's certainly a challenging process. As far as my process itself, let's talk about Nativity. This film was largely an orchestral score, and what I do on those is mock-up what the final score is going to sound like with fake instruments with synthesizers on a computer. Obviously, I can't have an orchestra sitting in the next room, playing my sketches so I can hear what it's going to be like.

So we have an electronic version of an oboe, a clarinet, a string section. I write the piece for those fake instruments, and we watch it with the picture to get an idea of how it's working. It's enough to give the director a sense of what I'm trying to do. And then once it's all approved and we hit our deadline -- I won't say "when we're finished" because you're never finished, you just work until they pull a rug out from under your feet and it's time to record -- you print up all those parts, the players play them, you record it, and they bring it all to life.

It sounds really stressful.

Yes it is! (Laughs.) It's a very collaborative art. It's certainly something that a composer who is unwilling or unable to work with other opinions would never be able to succeed at. You need to [be able to] work with people with all different kinds of personalities. You'll have to work with people who may not know anything about music, but they're the filmmakers so you obviously have to be able to work with them, and understand what they're trying to create. To be honest with you, writing the music is often the easiest part of the process. And of course, when you go to school and study composition, they don't spend any time in the classes on how to deal with directors and heads of studios and whatnot.

Sounds very political. So would you say the writing is your favorite part of the process?

It's really fun when you first get the job and you can tell all your friends. (Laughs.) That's really fun. Then you have to actually start working, and that part's really not that fun.


Maybe it's just me, but writing is not fun. It's kind of torturous most of the time. I mean, you're creating something out of nothing. The composer is one of the few people, other than the screenwriter, who does create something entirely out of nothing. There's nothing there, and then when you're done, there's something there. That's a challenging thing to have to do -- to pull stuff out of nothing.

But what a sense of accomplishment when it's done!

Yeah. The other part of the process that's really thrilling and indescribably satisfying is when people bring your score to life. When musicians play it, there's just nothing like the feeling of hearing it for the first time. For example, on this film, I had a seventy-piece orchestra and a big choir singing. I had been hearing my sketches in my head, and then hearing them on this pathetic synthesizer mock-up. But to hear real bodies playing and singing it, it's indescribable. It's really a thrill. It's almost worth what you go through.

Regarding the music itself, would you say The Nativity was distinctly than anything else you've done? Or was it in line with what you always do?

You know, there is no typical way that I work. The thing I love about writing music for film is that every project is a completely new challenge. It's a completely new circumstance, with completely new elements, like the story, the people you work with. You really have to wipe the blackboard clean and come to every project with an open mind. Because my job is to try to figure out what it is the filmmaker is trying to say, what it is that they have on the screen, and what the music can do to help tell the story.

You've got to be really open minded. There's different solutions for every film. It's not always just an orchestra playing late 19th Century style, which is what a lot of film scores are. And it's not just the solution that the last guy who did a Bible-era movie came up with either. I think you need to start at the ground level and figure out what will work for each movie individually. I always try to come up with some kind of concept -- an idea, a way of approaching the music for a film that will help tell the story and do something kind of interesting and maybe unexpected, but that helps enlighten the story.

For The Nativity Story, I think lately the trend for Bible-era movies has been to do a World Music mishmash, and have all kinds of influences from Indian to Arabic to African instruments all playing together. That goes back to Peter Gabriel's score in the 1980s for The Last Temptation for Christ, which kicked off the use of World Music in film scores. It's a very effective thing, but I wanted to do something a little different. I also feel like, on screen, the director, Catherine Hardwicke, captured so beautifully the feeling of being in Judea in the year 0. It's all there on the screen; we don't really need the music repeating that we're not in Kansas, you know.

I felt like the music for this one needed to do two things: it needed to build a bridge between the audience and the characters on the screen; and I also felt it would be very interesting to build a time bridge. This story is two thousand years old. How did it come down to us today? Well, it came down to us through the passing of this story for two thousand years, including two thousand years of music. There's a whole culture and civilization in the Medieval and Renaissance period based on this story, and there's so much powerful music and art that came from that period. I wanted to honor that bridge, so I used some Medieval instruments and choir techniques, to touch on that world.

All the singing in the film is in Latin, which was the language of the Christian church for almost fifteen hundred years. I also touched on some of the melodies of the past, some of the gregorian chant melodies and various early carols. I didn't want to make it a "Christmas carol potpourri," so we had to be careful about how far we went with that, and which carols we used. But I did want to bring up that history of music and remind people that they're watching a story that's been carried to us for two thousand years.

I'll give you one example. King Herod's declaration of the slaughter of the innocents, where he orders his men to go kill all children under two years old. In the 1400s, there was a pageant in Coventry, where they put on the Nativity play, and they portrayed this scene about King Herod by writing a carol for it called "The Coventry Carol." It has this beautiful melody, so I wove it into the film. I think it's a beautiful thing to be able to use this melody that was written in the 1400s to tell the same story that we're telling in the 21st Century. To be able to use that same melody in a modern pageant -- I find that really powerful and evocative.

I'm glad you brought that up, because I'm fascinated by how you used those ancient melodies in the score. Because if that same idea had been born in the wrong hands, it could have ended up with Home Alone or something like that. But it comes across so very hallowed in the score, without going too far, without being super-pious. It strikes just the right balance, and I'm impressed with how you pulled that off.

Oh, thank you. That's a great compliment. I tried to walk that line, and it's a bit overwhelming to write music for this story that every great composer since year 0 has written for. I wanted to honor some of what came before, but I didn't want to distract from the story by bursting into Christmas carols all over the place. Just to have that wafting in the air -- even if you don't quite recognize what the melody is -- just the sound and sense that it's an ancient melody.

Okay, here's the question I'm really dying to ask you. You're known for doing all of these very ethnic scores utilizing sounds and instruments from all over the world, and you've done a lot of different kinds of sounds in different movies. And I can't help but wonder: how do you decide what sound to use for any particular movie? Does the movie speak to you in some way, or does the director come to you with an idea of what they want?

Usually when I talk to a director, it's not about what they want, musically. Occasionally they'll have that in mind already. But ideally, what I'd like to hear from them is what they'd like to say with their film. Why did they make this movie? What is it that they're trying to say? What's their message? What's their theme? Once you decipher that, then you try and figure out what the music can say to help tell that story.

An example off the top of my head... I did a film with Ang Lee called The Ice Storm. That film is about the fragmentation of a family, based on the stresses placed upon families in the 1970s. Well, it's obvious we're in the 1970s with this movie, so you could easily just play 70s pop music. But it's plainly on the screen that we're in the 70s, so I like to use the music to do other things. What I settled on was to use what, on the surface, may have seemed like some unusual choices. I used a Native American flute and I used an Indonesian gamelan, which is a group of percussion instruments that's kind of soft and chime-like. It may seem a little strange at first, you know -- "Why am I hearing a Native American flute when I'm looking at Connecticut in the 1970s?" But the film also has this theme of nature, and how nature is more powerful than societal trends. The undercurrent of nature is going to win out in the end. That was something that the Native American flute is so in tune with. It came from a people who were probably more connected to their environment, more connected with nature. The gamelan is something that's in every village in Indonesia. It's a societal thing, a unifying thing, with people playing together. Meanwhile, on screen, we see all of these people breaking apart.

So that's the kind of powerful thing that music can do in a film score. It can say things that are thematically linked to the movie, but it's not always the most obvious thing. It's something subconscious and underneath what you're actually seeing.

Do you prefer doing music that's thematic or atmospheric?

Every film is different, and the question is not, "What do I want to do?" It's, "What is the best thing for the film?" I've worked where atmospheric, non-thematic music, is certainly the way to go. Then there's films like Nativity, where it's best to have more orchestral and melodic elements working in it. Like I said, I really wanted to build a time bridge, using Medieval and Renaissance instruments and themes. But I also thought it was very important to have an emotional connection between us and the characters on screeen. And there's nothing that does that better than a warm, modern string section. That was the right thing to do for this film -- a standard string/orchestral sound.

But there's films where that's not the right thing to do. I don't think that sound would have worked on Ice Storm. You just really have to get to the essence of what the film is before you write a single note or select your instruments. A lot of times, people will send me a script and they'll want to know how much it's going to cost. How many musicians will we need? How long will it take to record? And the answer is always, "I don't know yet." We won't know what our instrument group is before we know our concept. Another thing you have to work with is that you often have a set budget. And all of thsoe things -- how many musicians you can have, how long you can spend recording -- are often determined by how much money you have to work with. But I think that the concept is the first and most important thing in film music. You figure that out, and then you go from there.

That's a tremendous gift -- to be able to figure out or know instinctively what a film needs. I'm not sure there are a lot of composers that can do it that way, particularly with the range of diversity that you utilize.

Honestly, I think most composers simply don't bother with that conceptual stage. They just start writing music. They figure out what it is as they're doing it. I spend a lot of time talking to the director and watching film and just trying to come up with some solution, some concept. Then you can go from there. And the whole world of music is available to you: if the answer is a [scintar] and north African drums, then you can do that. There's no reason to cut off any music from any time or any place, as a possibility. It's all available, and it all has specific uses. It's like casting a film -- every actor brings an aura and a set of personality traits to a role. A duduk from Armenia or a [shohm] from Medieval France, it can all be used to say different things. So at the beginning of a project, I find myself casting kinds of music and kinds of instruments, the way a director might cast actors.

What are you working on right now?

I'm just starting on a film called Surf's Up, which is an animated project. It's something very different for me; I've never done animation before. I'm really looking forward to it.

I'm familiar with Surf's Up, and it's a very different kind of animated movie than what we're used to. They're playing it more like a documentary.

Yeah, exactly. It's a very smart film, and it's really beautiful to look at, as well, and it's funny. I think it's going to be a really nice piece.

Friday, January 05, 2007

"Nativity" Box Office

December 1-7, 2006:
Domestic: $10,194,000

December 8-14, 2006:
Domestic: $8,164,000

December 15-21, 2006:
Domestic: $8,328,000

December 22-28, 2006:
Domestic: $8,085,000

December 29-31, 2006:
Domestic: $1,506,000

January 1-4, 2007:
Domestic: $979,967

Total Domestic: $37,256,967
Total International: $6,629,889

Grand Total: $43,886,856

Monday, January 01, 2007

Passion is lacking for this 'Nativity'

By Lorenza Muñoz, Times Staff Writer
January 1, 2007

Laurie Foos, a student at Pasadena's Fuller Theological Seminary, figured that she didn't need to rush out to see New Line Cinema's "The Nativity Story" in its first week. She waited until her kids came home from college, venturing to the theater on Christmas Day, nearly a month after the movie opened. But by then, "Nativity" was out of her local multiplex in Ventura.

"It was the perfect day to see it but they had pulled it from the theater," said Foos, adding that if she had heard more about the film from within the Christian community, she would have seen it opening day, Dec. 1. "I wish there had been more awareness. It was lacking that kind of 'Oh my gosh, you have to go see that movie' factor."

In the movie business, the first weekend is a crucial gauge in determining whether a movie lives or dies. The soft $8-million opening for "The Nativity Story" wounded its chances of becoming a big holiday hit and could damp Hollywood's enthusiasm for big-budget faith-based movies.

Competition later in the month forced many exhibitors to push "Nativity" off the marquee to make room for such family films as "Night at the Museum," "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Charlotte's Web."

Even so, "Nativity" held on strong for several weeks, performing particularly well the week before Christmas. Ticket sales for the film, which tells the story of Mary and Joseph on their journey before the birth of Jesus, went up 52% the Wednesday before Christmas and 96% the Thursday before the holiday. The movie has grossed about $37 million through Sunday — a solid showing, considering its weak opening.

"Sampling with this audience takes time," said Russell Schwartz, head of marketing for New Line. "This was never about a huge opening weekend."

"The Nativity Story" comes after the huge success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which opened to $84 million in February 2004 and went on to gross more than $612 million worldwide, with $241 million coming from abroad.

"The Nativity Story" did not perform well in predominately Christian countries such as Italy or Spain or in Latin America. Domestically, however, "Nativity" is now among the top 10 highest-grossing faith-based or religious-themed films in recent times, according to Media by Numbers, a box-office tracking firm.

"It's one of those movies that people put unrealistic expectations on because of 'The Passion of the Christ,' but it's a solid performer," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers.

" 'The Passion' was a cultural phenomenon that went beyond the faith-based audience," he added. "The Christian audience is out there but, like any specifically targeted audience, you can't expect blockbusters to come just from that audience. But if you keep your budgets in line, you can make some solid returns on these movies."

New Line spent about $65 million making and marketing "The Nativity Story" and probably will make its money back on home video.

But Wyck Godfrey, producer of "The Nativity Story," fears that his movie's slow momentum at the box office will discourage others from making large-budget, overtly Christian entertainment.

"We were relieved by how it held up. But it has struck a blow to bigger-budget epic biblical stories," Godfrey said. "I'm not running out to do the [life of the] Apostle Paul, and I was thinking about doing it before."

Other studios, such as 20th Century Fox's FoxFaith division, are distributing low-budget Christian films, but most of them will skip theaters and go directly to video.

Most studios probably will stick to making mainstream fare and reaching out to the Christian audience when marketing movies with family-friendly themes such as "Charlotte's Web" or "The Pursuit of Happyness."

Courting many Christians, especially those who rarely go to the theater, takes time in part because of their distrust of Hollywood entertainment as violent, sex-laden and often disrespectful of their religious values.

"Moviegoing is a habit," Dergarabedian said. "Christian audiences are not in the habit of supporting Hollywood movies, because mainstream Hollywood movies don't reflect their values. To get them out to theaters is a little tougher."

Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission, said grass-roots marketing to build audience awareness needed to reach deep into the community.

"The key to marketing to the church is not as simple as just putting the word out by e-mail lists," Baehr said. "There is a whole nature of understanding the church."

Gibson and his team spent months courting church leaders, holding many screenings of "The Passion" before its release. Because a final print of "The Nativity Story" was not completed in time, the movie had only a few weeks of prescreening.

"If they want to market to the Christian community, they have to understand the value of prescreening to leaders," said Michael Catt, senior pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. "The church leaders control what is promoted from the pulpit."

Catt, who could not find a prescreening of "The Nativity Story" anywhere near his area, is the executive producer of the low-budget inspirational football film "Facing the Giants," which grossed nearly $10 million and was produced using $100,000 in church donations.

Some Christians were disappointed that "Nativity," directed by Catherine Hardwicke, did not push the envelope.

In an essay in the monthly magazine Christianity Today, editor David Neff gave the movie a generally good review but criticized it for shying away from depicting the true hardship of Mary and Joseph's era. He wrote that "Nativity" was done with "Christmas-card sentimentality" and glossed over the violence of the time, such as Herod's slaughter of the innocents.

The movie, Neff wrote, "is not boldly realistic like 'The Passion of the Christ.' "

Godfrey said it was a sign of the times that a film needed controversy or an edge to gain an audience.

"We unfairly get compared to 'The Passion' because it was so shocking," he said. "If I was going for box office, I would have been better off putting something sacrilegious and reinterpretive, like, was Mary really a virgin? But I didn't want to do that."

New Line was hoping to attract African American and Latino moviegoers in addition to white evangelicals. But according to the studio's research, mainly white women showed up that first weekend. By its third week, the movie benefited from large group attendance such as 600 schoolchildren from St. Monica's elementary school in Santa Monica and 1,200 from Dallas Trinity Church.

Foos, the Fuller Theological student, is hopeful that studios will continue to make biblically inspired films.

"They have to win over this audience," she said. "If they look at this as a failure, then that's too bad. This was their initiation and a way to gain credibility. They could put the movie out next Christmas. It comes around every year, you know."


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Blogger disappointed "Nativity" not ranked among Top 10 Family Films

Um, About That Missing Family Movie?!

Like a lot of people, I love lists, and I love the Beliefnet team of gifted bloggers, writers, and editors, but I have to say it's a glaring oversight that "The Nativity Story" doesn't make the list of Top Ten Family Films of 2006, which Sharon Linnea--Beliefnet's Reel Inspirational columnist--compiled.

For years, young people have not had a definitive version of the Christmas story to watch, rent, buy, or give. The closest we've had is the Peanuts special, which at least recites the story. The makers of "The Nativity Story" may not have made an Oscar winner or even an all-time classic, but they made the best we have so far, bringing the drama of the story to life on a screen much bigger and with a sound much broader than the classic Sunday School flannel board lesson. And in our media culture, kids deserve this.

When some people think of classic love stories, they think of Romeo and Juliet, or perhaps something they saw with their first boyfriend. But I think the Christmas story is the greatest love story of all time. Jesus left heaven, became one of us to show us a visible image of an invisible God, lived among us for awhile to know us and to be known, died to make a relationship with God possible and rose from the dead to prove it was all true.

I'd love it if future Christmas seasons brought us sequels that focused on each area of his life, death, and resurrection. Movies have an ability to transcend denominations and sectarian biases and just tell a story, and families are well-served to have something so meaningful to then discuss together.

"The Nativity" may not have some of the accoutrements of the typical feel-good holiday flick, but it's content alone makes it an essential for the spiritual seeker.

posted by Douglas Howe @ 2:06 PM Permalink Comments

Monday, December 25, 2006

What was the Star of Bethlehem?

"Nativity" uses the astronomical conjunction of Jupiter, Venus, and the star Regulus to explain the Star divinely leading the Magi to Bethlehem; here are other theories as to what the Star may have been.

What was the Star of Bethlehem?
Was it a comet? A supernova? Or something else?

The Star of Bethlehem has left its mark on the gospels as well as a constellation of holiday songs. Was it purely a divine sign, created miraculously to mark Jesus’ birth? Or was it an astronomical event in its own right? John Mosley, program supervisor for the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, says there are several scientific scenarios for the “Star of Wonder.”

Through the years, astronomers and others have proposed a variety of objects for the Christmas star — comets, an exploding star or a grouping of planets. Some suggest that the star was a miracle created especially by God. Such a suggestion cannot be proved or disproved, and it is entirely outside the realm of science. But there’s no need to resort to miracles, given the actual astronomical events of the time.

The first thing is to determine the approximate date of Jesus’ birth. Then we look into the sky of that period and try to identify the star. It doesn’t work the other way around: Since virtually any year can boast at least one reasonably interesting sky event, the astronomy must follow the history.

Ruling out prime suspects
Let’s assume, as many historians have, that the most likely time frame for the birth of Jesus was between 3 B.C. and A.D. 1. Let’s also assume that the Star of Bethlehem could be observed by skywatchers elsewhere in the world, and not just by the Magi — who are known as “wise men” or “kings” but were actually priests who relied on astrology.

These assumptions would rule out some of the prime suspects in the mystery: comets, brightening stars known as novae, and exploding stars known as supernovae. The Chinese, who did a particularly good job of cataloging astronomical phenomena, recorded no such phenomena during the years in question.

Beyond the timing issue, there’s another consideration: A comet or supernova big enough to attract the wise men’s attention would have been widely noticed by royalty and commoners as well. But King Herod and his advisers seemed not to know or care about the star until the astrologers from the east came to visit.

However, if we suppose that the “star” actually referred to the planets, the situation is less problematic. The movements and groupings of planets in the night sky were of exceeding interest to astrologers and were closely tracked around the world. Historical records and modern-day computer simulations indicate that there was a rare series of planetary groupings, also known as conjunctions, during the years 3 B.C. and 2 B.C.

The show started on the morning of June 12 in 3 B.C., when Venus could be sighted very close to Saturn in the eastern sky. Then there was a spectacular pairing of Venus and Jupiter on Aug. 12 in the constellation Leo, which ancient astrologers associated with the destiny of the Jews.

Between September of 3 B.C. and June of 2 B.C., Jupiter passed by the star Regulus in Leo, reversed itself and passed it again, then turned back and passed the star a third time. This was another remarkable event, since astrologers considered Jupiter the kingly planet and regarded Regulus as the “king star.”

The crowning touch came on June 17, when Jupiter seemed to approach so close to Venus that, without binoculars, they would have looked like a single star.

Rewarding search
The whole sequence of events could have been enough for at least three astrologers to go to Jerusalem and ask Herod: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.”

Now, this doesn’t mean that astrology works. We haven’t ruled out other possibilities for the Star of Bethlehem. And the mere existence of interesting celestial events does nothing to prove that the birth of Jesus was accompanied by a star, that the Magi existed, or even that the Nativity took place as described in the Bible.

But it does make our search more rewarding to find a truly interesting astronomical event that happened during the most likely time for the Nativity.

This article is based on John Mosley’s 1987 book, “The Christmas Star,” which is available from the Griffith Observatory. “The Christmas Star” addresses many other questions about the season, such as: When was Christ born? Who were the Magi? Why is Christmas observed on Dec. 25?

© 2006 MSNBC Interactive

Friday, December 22, 2006

Infuze interviews Catherine Hardwicke

After directing the gritty, arthouse films Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, director Catherine Hardwicke has transformed the birth of Christ into a feature film with The Nativity Story. In this exclusive interview, she discusses the movie with Robin Parrish telling us the premiere at the Vatican, the intense scouting processes involved and what she's working on next.


Robin: I wanted to ask you a little bit about your process. What does your process as a director look like for a film like The Nativity Story?

Catherine: I got the script in the middle of January of this year. It was sent to me in a stack of scripts from my agency. I read it, and started getting really excited. So I did some research and found out that Mary really was only thirteen or fourteen years old, according to all of the scholars. I started downloading pictures, and I researched the stars. What could have made the Star of Bethlehem shine so brightly? I got a lot of images and photos together, even before I went to the interview.

Then I went in to the meeting with the studio saying, "These are some of the ideas that I have, this is what I think we could do to make the script better and richer. Here's visually how it could look. Here's where we could film it..." I went in to my initial job interview with a lot of ideas, a lot of pictures and books and things to get them excited. So they picked me to do it.

Next I had to make a schedule explaining how I would get the movie done in time to come out this Christmas. I realized I needed to get on a plane and get to Jerusalem to do some research in two days. I needed to understand what the Holy Land was like. So I was on a plane two or three days later. I took my camera and I took a zillion photographs of everything, tried to talk to everyone I could. I was even researching on the plane ride. I had to know what was life like? I needed details of that life, I needed to absorb it so that I understood it all the best I could.

I also worked with the writer, Mike Rich, who was in Seattle. Any notes I would come up with, things I would learn, I would email to him. "Oh, this would be a great detail!" Basically, during the prep time, you're just using everything you can to learn about the subject, to absorb it, and to make the script better, richer, and deeper.

Also, you're trying to figure out who should be in the movie. You're meeting with casting directors. In our case, we were meeting with casting directors in six different cities: Rome, Tel Aviv, London, Paris, New York, and L.A. It was a worldwide search to find really great actors that looked believable to be from the Middle East. So every night I would come back from location scouting, and I would go to a secure website we had and look at the girls that had auditioned in Tel Aviv earlier that day, for example. I watched their auditions, and then I would say something like, "These three seem to be the most powerful or the most interesting. When I get to Tel Aviv, I'd like to meet these three."

At the same time, you're scouting locations. We had to decide very quickly, where we were going to shoot this movie. I took my little digital camera everywhere, to the locations that I thought would work. The locations we went with were in southern Italy and Morocco. But I would photograph everything, and then scan it all into my computer at night and try to organize it into which scenes each location would be useful for. Then I would go back to the map and try to figure out how to make all this make sense from a realistic point of view. How could we do it without having to move to new locations every five minutes, what could we consolidate to help with finances and resources... It's all about making a real plan for shooting the movie.

Then I met with the actors. You do auditions, and they read through scenes for you, and I try to get a sense of who would be great for each role. In the meantime, I'm sending emails and phone calls back to the studio, and try to talk them into things like, "But I think this guy would be great for Joseph!" Then you hire all of the crew people that are going to make it all happen. You need a few different choices for costume designer and production designer and the composer and all those things. And they'll come to their interview the same way I did, with lots of ideas of their own based on their own research. Each craftperson brings their own level of expertise, so you try to pick the right person for that job.

Then you start actually working! (Laughs.)


Once you hire your lead actor and actress, the costume designer can start making drawings of costumes and making actual clothes. I told the costume designer that I wanted the people's clothing in Nazareth to match the color of the sheep. Because that's where they got all their wool. The stones at the location are what their houses would have been made of, so the houses had to match the color of the land. You have to make it come alive and be organic and real. The shooting process, which is two months or more. On our movie, it was only two months. Some movies spend almost a year filming; it depends on how much money you have in the budget.

So you're filming every day, trying to get the shots, moving to different locations. Once that's done, you go into an editing process, which is another two or three or maybe many more months, where you get all of the footage back and you start cutting the scenes together, trying to get the story to come alive. You put pieces of music to it as that comes in from the composer, or you re-record some sound where it was too windy that day on set and you couldn't understand the actor's dialogue. So you have to get them back in the studio to lip-synch over their action on film.

It's very detailed work. Many, many sounds often have to be replaced. We might have to come up with a perfect horse sound, if we didn't get it that day on the set. Maybe we didn't have a microphone on the horse, because we had a microphone on Keisha [Castle-Hughes]... There are all of these different layers to it, and after you've worked through them all, then finally, hopefully, you get your movie done.

So you've got to be really good at multitasking to be a director.

Oh, completely. A good example: I would be riding around in the back of a four-wheel drive out in the desert in Morocco, looking at locations. At the same time, I would have a jack plugged into the vehicle's cigarette lighter so my computer could be powered up and I could be working on the script. And I'd have one of those wireless cards plugged in so I could be emailing my thoughts on the script back to Mike Rich. It's just wild! (Laughs.)

I understand you had an accelerated schedule on this one, as well.

I had nine months and two weeks. That's why I was definitely multitasking.

How do you view that side of the work? Is it something to dread, or do you take it in stride?

Very up and down. (Laughs.) Some days you feel like things are just going so well, and then the next day nothing works out and it feels like a big disaster. It's very much a rollercoaster. Which is kind of cool, I guess. It's just like life.

So looking back, now that it's all done, what are you most pleased with about this project?

I really loved meeting all of these actors from around the world, and finding each person had a connection to the story. Even if it wasn't their religion. Filming in a Muslim country, it made me realize that there are more similarities between most religions than differences. People were moved by the emotional elements of the story, by the spirituality of the story, by the messages and the themes, regardless of their religion. That was very inspiring to me.

I also felt like the actors really gave their hearts and souls to the project. They worked really hard to get inside the skin of Mary and Joseph and help you feel what it could have been like to be a real person going through this noble, difficult experience.

We've never seen this perspective of the nativity on film before -- that very human aspect of Mary and Joseph and what they went through.

I went to sunday school and church my whole life, and I always assumed that Mary and Joseph were happy and everything was great. They had these visions and everybody applauded and brought them gifts.


(Laughs.) But if you study the culture at the time, or even if you just study the book of Matthew -- you'll read a line that says Joseph was planning to divorce Mary, privately. That one sentence has a lot of anguish in it. This is a woman he loved. He was a strictly religious man, and for him to decide he might need to divorce her because she came home pregnant... He knows he's not the father. That's a huge deal, even now, in our time. There's a very visceral reaction to seeing the person you love pregnant with someone else's child. How do you struggle with that moral dilemma? How do you trust her? How do you believe her? Those moments were what really drew me in to the idea of making this film and making the story come alive for people.

It's interesting to see the story put in the proper historical and cultural context. I'm not sure that's something we've ever delved into before, this deeply.

I was fascinated by all of that. These people were living hand-to-mouth, planting seeds, saving every bit of grain they had. On top of that, Herod came in and taxed them, taking half of what they had. Living under that kind of pressure, with those economic realities, that kind of connection to the land where you knew where your food came from... It's so foreign to us now.

What was the premier at the Vatican like for you?

A very surreal experience. (Laughs.) I thought they must have been exaggerating when they said there were going to be seven thousand people there, but you walk into this space, there were seven thousand people there. It was several rows of people in their beautiful black robes and cardinal's hats, and of course I was about to faint!


(Laughs.) It was a "what am I doing here?!" moment. So they're watching the movie, and I'm getting so nervous wondering what everybody is going to think. "What if this detail isn't right, or what if that scene doesn't look good?" But then at the moment the baby was born, it started to rain outside. I heard rain pattering on the roof. I said to the person next to me, "It's raining." And they said, "No, that's applause." It came from the back of the theater along this kind of curved roof, and it traveled over the whole audience. People just burst into applause when Jesus was born. It was really neat.

Then people stood up and tried to take photographs of the moment on the screen when Jesus was born.


It was amazing!

If it wasn't at the Vatican, they'd get arrested for that sort of thing.

I know! Usually you get patted-down before you go into a premier, but I guess they didn't worry about the nuns taking pictures. But really, it was an amazing, beautiful experience. And the best thing about it is that the whole thing was done as a benefit for this school in Israel that's in a war-torn area. The school will help kids from all different races and faiths -- Muslims, Jews, and Christians. I love that.

So what's next for you?

Working on The Nativity has reinforced in my mind what I was planning to do before. It's a movie about the environment. As we tried to find locations that hadn't changed in two thousand years, we found that that's pretty difficult in this world, because we haven't taken very good care of it. Even in the middle of the desert in Morocco, there would be trash heaps. Plastic bags would blow at you. It was crazy the things that we saw, just scouting for locations.

So that's what I'm working on next. It's called The Monkey Wrench Gang, and it's based on a novel about four people in the Southwest, who were idealists in the seventies, trying to save the land around the Grand Canyon. It's a comedy. It's going to be really fun.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

"Nazareth Village" used as inspiration in "Nativity"

Nazarenes live and act as Jesus did
POSTED: 4:21 p.m. EST, December 21, 2006
By Michael McKinley and David Gibson

NAZARETH VILLAGE, Israel (CNN) -- Two thousand years after Jesus walked the hills of the Galilee, a group of American and Israeli scholars have created Nazareth Village, the kind of first-century Hebrew town where Jesus grew up, in the very city where he was raised.

That makes Nazareth Village a treasure not only to archaeologists and Christian pilgrims, but also to filmmakers.

Because in spite of the religious significance and nostalgia surrounding the biblical town of Nazareth, today's sprawling, modern-day version of the city would have been unrecognizable to Jesus.

Then, a decade ago Dr. Stephen Pfann, president of the University of the Holy Land, spotted remnants of an ancient wine press while visiting nearby Nazareth Hospital.

Encouraged by the hospital administration, Pfann worked with fellow biblical scholars, including his wife, Claire -- one of the on-camera experts in the CNN Presents documentary "After Jesus" -- to painstakingly rebuild this modern-day archaeological marvel on a 20-acre patch of hillside in the midst of a bustling city of 70,000 people -- Muslim, Jewish and Christian.

Nazareth Village is no dry museum piece or shallow tourist trap, but a working village that recreates a Jewish community at the time of the first century.

Today, Nazarene men, women and children from the surrounding neighborhood dress in authentic first-century costumes to plow fields, bake bread and press olives.

They also are rebuilding the village using the ancient materials and methods that Jesus and his family would have used. There are houses, a carpenter's shop, a synagogue and a stable.

Nazareth Village is not only a popular destination for schools and tourists, but it is also a key location for television and film productions that deal with Jesus and his time.

Recently, re-enactors from Nazareth Village were taken to a southern Italian town to appear in the recent Christmas film, "The Nativity," which tells in historical detail the story of the birth of Jesus.

Much of that historical precision was provided by the folks from Nazareth Village.

Indeed, the town works with producers to give us what we need by way of events and characters to tell our Jesus stories.

When we were filming segments for "After Jesus," the re-enactors helped us cast our scenes.

One tour guide had played the Apostle Peter before, and slid into his role with genial ease; another played the mercurial Apostle Paul, and worked with us to reveal the character of this complex man, who is often seen as second only to Jesus in the foundation of Christianity.

And then there were the children, full of energy and fun, but mindful of their elders and their role in this accomplishment.

It is one that is all the more extraordinary given the troubles brought upon Nazareth by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nazareth is in the heart of the Galilee, the northern province of Israel, just as in biblical times.

And today, just as then, it is often caught up in the violence that afflicts the area.

Most recently, rockets from Hezbollah militias, situated just a few miles to the north across the border in Lebanon, struck the city during the conflict with Israel.

While Nazareth Village wasn't directly hit, the conflict recalled the daily violence of the Roman occupation during the time of Jesus and his contemporaries.

For today's Nazarenes, any outbreak of violence generally leads to a drastic drop-off in tourism, mainly by Christian pilgrims from North America.

The industry provides an economic lifeline for the poor city and especially for Nazareth Village, which scrapes by largely on donations.

More than ever, the message of peace at the heart of Christianity is something embraced by both the "citizens" of the village and those who do visit.

The village is keen to show how the rhythm of rural life in this rocky, hilly country would have influenced Jesus, a carpenter now called the Prince of Peace.

And while our show deals with how the teachings of this humble Galilean became a global religion after he died, Nazareth Village is a powerful reminder of how he lived.

"Nativity's" poor showing a "major setback"

Seen as bad news for people of faith who want more values-based, family fare
Posted: December 21, 2006
1:00 a.m. Eastern
© 2006

The poor showing of "The Nativity Story" this Christmas season is bad news for people of faith who hope Hollywood will make more feature films their families can enjoy, according to Christian movie reviewer Ted Baehr.

"It's a very serious setback," said Baehr, founder and publisher of Movieguide and chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission.

The disappointing performance is all the more significant, Baehr told WND, because, unlike blockbusters "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia," "Nativity" was produced by a major studio, New Line Cinema.

Baehr explained Hollywood takes about a dozen years to make a movie, so making changes in a good direction is like "turning the Titanic around."

"If one or two movies do well, the ship will continue on a positive course, otherwise it will turn back to whatever makes money," he said.

Right now, Baehr noted, the easy money is made on "extremely bigoted, anti-Christian movies" such as "Borat" and "Jackass 2."

Baehr said the performance of "Nativity" is especially disappointing because it's an exceptionally good film that adheres closely to the Bible.

"It's very entertaining, very authentic and has captured all ranges of the church, from James Dobson to Charles Colson to the Vatican," he said. "It should be doing great business."

But as of Tuesday, "Nativity," with a production budget of $35 million, has an estimated gross box office of just $24.6 million in the U.S. since opening Dec. 1. Another "values" film, Walden Media's "Charlotte's Web," finished a distant third in its opening this past weekend, grossing $11.6 million, while the leader, "The Pursuit of Happyness," grossed $26.5 million. "Nativity finished ninth over the weekend, at just under $4.7 million.

Getting the word out

Baehr believes a major problem for "Nativity" was that marketers didn't get the word out early to their vital partner, the churches.

Mel Gibson, he pointed out, was promoting "Passion" in churches nine months before its release. With "Narnia," study guides were distributed to nearly every church – an effort that requires marketers to be "one year ahead of the game." "Passion," released in 2004, had a worldwide box office of $604 million.

In the end, the estimated 149 million Americans who regularly attend church services need to show up in order for movies such as "The Nativity Story" to be successful, Baehr said.

"The most powerful person in Hollywood is not a Michael Eisner," Baehr said. "It's the person who goes to the movie and votes at the box office."

Baehr said "Nativity" has one of the best scripts ever for a biblical story.

"What makes a movie compelling is a sense of jeopardy, and that sense of jeopardy is present throughout this movie," he said in a WND interview last month. "The dialogue, the plot development, the turning points are refreshingly dramatic, so good in fact that they will elicit tears at certain points."

Oscar Isaac plays Joseph and Keisha Castle-Hughes is Mary in the movie, which opens with the prophecy in Jeremiah 23:5-6: "'The days are coming,'" declares the Lord, 'when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.'"

Friday, December 08, 2006

Whither the "Nativity" Crowd?

The Nativity Story came into theaters worldwide last weekend in much the same way that Christ himself came into the world—quietly, without much fanfare, and with only a small crowd witnessing the event.

The film, a $35 million project from New Line Cinema, finished just fourth at the box office with a paltry $7.8 million in ticket sales. A New Line spokesman said a huge snowstorm across the heartland kept some of the crowds away from the cineplex, but they seemed to be able to get out to see Happy Feet, Casino Royale, and Déjà Vu, all of which finished ahead of Nativity.

I was a bit disappointed—and a little embarrassed; more on that in a moment—by the turnout. I think The Nativity Story is a beautiful film about the birth of our Savior, and I think it'll be a Christmas classic in home DVD libraries for years to come. Reviews have been mixed; we gave it three (out of four) stars, and other reviewers are all over the map—everything from high praise to outright slams.

I might disagree with critics who aren't impressed with the film, but I wouldn't call their opinions "outrageous, disingenuous lies," as one outspoken pundit recently bellowed. Outrageous lies? Because they didn't like the movie? My goodness. Aren't people entitled to their opinions without being called liars?

Of course they are; I certainly am, and I don't mind sharing mine—including some opinions that may ruffle a few feathers. Like this one:

With the low turnout for The Nativity Story, compared to the relatively high turnout for other recent Christian movies like Facing the Giants and One Night with the King, I'm afraid Christian moviegoers are sending a message to Hollywood that isn't very pretty:

"We want more lame movies about our faith!"

The major studios are asking, "What films make money, and which ones don't?" If gory slasher flicks make money, they'll make gory slasher flicks. If gratuitous violence, steamy sex and raunchy humor sells, they'll make more movies with gratuitous violence, steamy sex and raunchy humor.

And now they must be thinking something like this: If Christians will settle for mediocre—or worse—films of faith, especially if they're made on a shoestring budget, then we'll deliver the goods! (Here's hoping that won't happen with The Weinstein Company, which just announced its own Christian film division.)

The Passion of The Christ earned a whopping $83.8 million in its first weekend. New Line Cinema didn't expect that kind of windfall, but they certainly hoped for a better debut for Nativity, which cost $35 million to make. (The Passion cost $30 million.)

But forget the comparisons to the incomparable Passion. Compared to the fast start of Facing the Giants and One Night with the King, Nativity was practically stuck at the starting gate on opening weekend.Nativity opened in a whopping 3,183 theaters, averaging $2,466 per theater. Giants opened in just 441 theaters, but averaged $3,046 per theater, while King, which opened in 909 theaters, averaged $4,533.

Had Giants opened in 3,183 theaters like Nativity, it would have earned $9.7 million on opening weekend—$2 million more than Nativity. Similarly, King would have earned $14.4 million—almost twice Nativity's first-weekend take.

While it's nice to see any Christian film successful at the box office, I'm concerned that Hollywood might be getting this message (whether Christian moviegoers are intending to send it or not): Cheaply made, cheesy films with poor acting and storytelling (Giants) and a bit more expensive but not much better movies (King) will satisfy the Christian audience. And well-made, artistic, thoughtful movies like The Nativity Story just aren't worth the bang for buck; why should a studio lose money on a movie?

At least that's the message after opening weekend for The Nativity Story. But there are still a few weeks left till Christmas. Perhaps Nativity will pick up some momentum and gain some "legs" in the weeks ahead, and Hollywood will get the message that making excellent Christian movies is money well spent. It'll never come near The Passion's worldwide take of more than $600 million, but here's one observer who hopes that Nativity picks up enough financial steam in the next few weeks that Hollywood gets the right message.

Speaking of The Passion, Mel Gibson is back in the news, not for drunken anti-Semitic remarks, thank goodness, but back in the director's chair with Apocalypto, his first film since Passion. Some say it's the most violent movie they've ever seen; our reviewer, Peter T. Chattaway, describes Gibson as "a sadist who rubs our faces in cinematic violence," but finds enough worthwhile material to give it 2½ stars.Two more new reviews this week: Blood Diamond, an action-packed drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a mercenary who trades diamonds for weapons in Sierra Leone's civil war, and The Holiday, a Kate Winslet/Camerin Diaz/Jude Law/Jack Black treat that our reviewer says is one of the better romantic comedies out of Hollywood in quite a while.

Also, you'll soon be reaching for It's a Wonderful Life, if you haven't already. But how much do you know about its director, Frank Capra? Learn more about him in our latest edition of Filmmakers of Faith, as writer Frank Smith explores the famed director's history.

Finally, who will direct The Hobbit? Will it be Peter Jackson, who directed the Lord of the Rings trilogy? Or someone else? Get the scoop in Reel News.

See you at the movies,

Mark Moring
Online Managing Editor/Music & Film

"Nativity" Bible Studies

Christianity Today has created two Bible studies just for "Nativity," a family guide and a regular guide. They are provided as a Word file and can be purchased for $5.95 each. They cover such topics including the following:

Discussion Guide

• Movie Summary

• Discussing the Scenes
—Belief vs. Unbelief (Luke 1:5–22, 26–45)
—The Journey of Faith (Psalm 56:3–4; 121:1–8; Proverbs 14:12, 31; 19:21; Hebrews 11:1)
—God’s Faithfulness (1 Kings 19:1–13; Luke 1:46–55)

• As the Credits Roll

Even though the studies must be purchased to download, they give permission for up to 1000 copies to be made for distribution in churches.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Queen Spoo's Review

“The Nativity Story” begins with an opening reminiscent of a combination of “The Passion of the Christ” and “Star Wars,” with the text scrolling across the night sky, informing the viewer of the time and place in which the story begins, along with a prophetic Messianic Scripture of Jeremiah 23:5-6:

5 "The days are coming," declares the LORD,
"when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
6 In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The LORD Our Righteousness.
Interestingly, it treats the whole story leading up to the Nativity as a large flashback, happening a year earlier than the opening to Herod’s massacre of the infants in Bethlehem. As it opens with Zechariah’s turn to burn the incense in the Temple, as his wife, Elizabeth, waits outside, the treatment of that scene worked well, showing with accuracy the priestly duties and the Temple architecture. The presentation of Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah only by the moving of the smoke as he spoke was a creative approach, even though we do actually see Gabriel in bodily form later in the movie.

As we see the village of Nazareth and the everyday life of Mary and her family, the rusticness and poverty is well-conveyed. She helps in the fields, makes and sells cheese with her family, and assists neighbors with tasks. Despite the poor circumstances, largely due to the overtaxing and occupation by the Romans, it appears that the villagers get along and make as much of their community together as possible. However, this tightknit community also is quite judgmental—as was typical of Jewish society—later on when Mary comes back pregnant from her visit with Elizabeth. Before all of this, when Mary is betrothed to Joseph—likely because he is attracted to her, and also because her father is financially unstable—we meet a very winsome man as portrayed by Oscar Isaac. We see Joseph as nervous around the girl he’s in love with, unsure of how to deal with her walking out of the house after she is betrothed. We also get glimpses of the type of man Joseph is, honorable and considerate, when he recovers Mary’s father’s donkey that the Romans took for tax payment. However, Mary’s response, as portrayed by Castle-Hughes, I found to be less than inspiring—her expression hardly seemed grateful, and she nearly inaudibly thanked Joseph as she walks off with the donkey.

The visitation by Gabriel to Mary occurs in broad daylight while she is resting in the groves from working. Initially, she senses something is different because of the wind—reminiscent of the story recurring in the Jewish scripture-telling from I Kings 19:11-12 that God was not in the wind (or the earthquake or the fire), but in the still small voice. His appearance to her appears both human and angelic at the same time, as we see him here in bodily form, though transparent near the ground. After this appearance, Mary decided to visit Elizabeth to see if what Gabriel said was true about her miraculous pregnancy, and going with her parents’ reluctant permission, she finds out it is indeed true. The “girl time” they shared was a good segment of the film, sharing their miraculous pregnancies and helping confirm to Mary that her pregnancy was indeed from God and she wasn’t just dreaming things. Even Elizabeth’s childbirth scene brought some reality to the situation, as Mary looked on with a little dismay that this was something she would be looking forward to.

The film provides an insightful look into what Mary would have faced with her “illegitimate” pregnancy with her family and her neighbors. Joseph shows well-deserved concern, yet shows mercy in his decision not to accuse her so that she won’t be tried and possibly stoned. One of the best scenes of the movie was when Joseph is dreaming about the situation with Mary’s pregnancy, seeing the crowd gathering to stone her, and as he is handed a stone and he nearly throws it at her, Gabriel steps in the way and delivers his message to Joseph to take Mary as his wife and confirms that her child was miraculously conceived.

As they have to leave to Bethlehem for the census, we see some beautiful and rugged landscape, giving the viewers some idea of the arduous journey it would have taken to get there. Again, we see some of the traditional Jewish customs, such as Joseph’s blessing the bread in Hebrew. Furthermore, the good-naturedness of Joseph continues to be shown, particularly when he feeds their donkey some of his bread so that it won’t become too weak for the traveling. Interestingly, as they are walking through Jerusalem on the way on to Bethlehem, as they are walking through the outer courts of the Temple and get sacrificial birds shoved at them for purchase, Joseph makes a striking comment echoing Jesus’ later, saying “I thought this was supposed to be a holy place.”

They finally arrive in Bethlehem, where there is no room as Mary goes into labor. They find an animal cave/stable and Joseph has to deliver Jesus on his own. As they try to get comfortable with the new Baby, shepherds appear from nowhere—including an old one they had previously met on the road—soon followed by the Magi, as Joseph and Mary look on in amazement. Here again, Joseph appears to be mystified, but Mary just looks on without much expression, rather than appearing that she is “pondering all these things and treasured them up in her heart.” Perhaps she is too exhausted from traveling and giving birth.

The film then comes full circle, as Herod gives the order to kill all boys under 2, while Joseph simultaneously gets a message in another dream to hurry and get out of town towards Egypt, narrowly missing the soldiers’ arrival. It ends by showing the family arriving at the pyramids of Egypt, awaiting the next saga to chronicle the next stage in Jesus’ life.

Oscar Isaac turns in a solid performance all around, showing a range of emotions and giving depth to the much-ignored character of Joseph. Keisha Castle-Hughes, on the other hand, provides a disappointing performance, especially after the high standards she performed as the lead Paikea in “Whale Rider.” She may have been trying to portray Mary as serious or pious, but she largely came across as unemotional and bored. Shaun Toub and Hiam Abbass (who actually was born in Nazareth—how cool!) played believable parents to Mary. Shohreh Aghdashloo portrayed a wonderful image of Elizabeth, a kind, compassionate, and righteous woman who helped Mary through her difficult predicament. Ciaran Hinds pulled off a decent balance for the mentally unstable and paranoid King Herod (the Great), showing his vanity, arrogance, and paranoia that his throne would be toppled, even by members of his own family. The Magi were a nice counter to the rest of the film, providing some mild comedy, but without being over the top or being unrealistic. Gaspar’s skepticism was an interesting twist, and made his belief at the end all the more meaningful.

The movie attempts to stay reverent and authentic at the same time. Jewish customs are represented accurately and respectfully, even small ones. One nice touch was the inclusion of a dove whenever an angel departed or the presence of God was indicated, particularly as one flew over Mary after she tells Gabriel that she would accept God’s plan for her to carry Jesus as a particularly representational moment of the Holy Spirit’s presence coming over her as it flew by. Even the use of the cave—rather than a wood stable—showed the greater degree of accuracy than most Christmas films. Theologically, the story was compressed, particularly with the arrival of the Magi with the shepherds, to allow for time as well as the traditional images of the Nativity often seen in crèches. The cinematography was spectacular, keeping it soft and earthy, while maintaining the moments of the divine when needed. The only thing that seemed incongruent was the nitty-grittiness of the whole film until the end for the actual Nativity scene, where it suddenly becomes the picturesque Christmas card. The imagery is beautifully shot, but it seems to insert the quintessential Nativity scene—which I suppose is appropriate for a movie called “The Nativity Story”—perhaps to represent this holy moment differently around the bookends of more realistic renditions of their everyday life.

Grade: B+

"Nativity" elicits different responses

Nativity Story Delights Some, Disappoints Others
Christian film critics have mixed feelings about Catherine Hardwicke's The Nativity Story.
by Jeffrey Overstreet posted 12/07/2006

For Christians, Christmas is a time to think about Chapter One of the Greatest Story Ever Told. But at the movies, the holiday is usually celebrated with forgettable, frivolous features like the latest episode in the Santa Clause series and heavy-hitting, Oscar-contending dramas like Babel and the upcoming Dreamgirls.

This year, however, thanks to New Line Cinema, director Catherine Hardwicke, and screenwriter Mike Rich, The Nativity Story is surprising holiday moviegoers with a substantial Christmas message. The film takes its subject seriously, adhering closely to the details of the scriptural text and with a remarkable attention to period detail. The film feels authentic in its dusty, simple design, and in the complexion of its cast.

And the biggest surprise of all? This version of The Nativity Story brings the character of Joseph to life. Through a nuanced performance by Oscar Isaac, we're blessed with a detailed portrait of a virtuous man stepping up to accept enormous responsibility. We see his pride shaken as his fiancée becomes pregnant by a mystery. We see him fearful and dismayed as the community becomes suspicious. We feel his angst as he wonders if he can teach the Son of God anything. And then we sense his fears as he travels with Mary back to his crowded hometown where nobody is willing to help them, and they end up in a stable.

But The Nativity Story is also surprising some Christian critics by just how far short it falls from what it might have been.

I was excited to see a chapter of Christ's story shared without apology or dismaying distortions, and yet I've rarely encountered a version of the story that failed to inspire wonder, excitement, and awe the way this one fails. It all seems so dutiful and responsible and safe that the film never really came to life, never lit up with passion. Despite the attention to detail, almost every scene in The Nativity Story feels rushed. We might have had scenes, but instead we have hurried exchanges. Hardwicke seems to have forgotten that the big screen can be a canvas for visual poetry, for inspiring awe with light and color. She seems to merely document what the actors are doing, without any interest in metaphor or beauty.

When Mike Rich's screenplay shifts from the Bible's language to his own embellishments are abrupt and distracting. Events that should feel momentous and thought-provoking—like the restoration of Zechariah's speech, Elizabeth's rejoicing with Mary, Gabriel's announcement, and the central nativity event in the stable—all arrive and pass so quickly, we hardly have a chance to apprehend the gravity of what is happening.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary. The actress, so alive and engaging in Whale Rider, seems trapped in two or three facial expressions here, and her line readings are flat and automatic. When Gabriel arrives, her face fails to communicate anything like fear or fascination. Only Oscar Isaac, as Joseph, manages to communicate more than the screenplay gives him to say. Only he gains a powerful hold on our sympathies. Why these three wise men are called "wise" is anybody's guess. And when we arrive at the nativity itself, it looks far too much like a Hallmark Christmas card; the stable seems to be missing a roof, allowing the Christmas star to spotlight the Christ child.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Here's what other Christian press film critics are saying:

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says the movie's "real hero" is Joseph, who "may be the most attractive embodiment of goodness and self-giving devotion that we have seen in a movie since Sean Astin played Sam in The Lord of the Rings."

He also adds that there's "a tension of sorts in Mike Rich's screenplay, which oscillates between the need to be faithful to the biblical text, on the one hand, and the freedom to create dramatically compelling characters and scenes, on the other. While Rich trims out some of the dialogue that appears in the Bible, the parts that he keeps are presented almost exactly as written, yet these sections of the film—especially the Annunciation and the restoration of speech to Zechariah—feel rushed and anticlimactic, and are never quite woven into the rest of the drama."

He concludes, "For all the talk of 'realism' and 'authenticity' that has surrounded this film, it is still very much a family-friendly Christmas pageant, a Christmas crèche brought to theatrical life."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is impressed with scenes that develop "the human dimension of what the terse biblical narratives merely imply … . The tender relationship between young Mary and the older Elizabeth … is touchingly drawn, and the public shame and scandal faced by Mary returning to Nazareth, and by Joseph if he stands by her, is vividly portrayed. … Further enhancing the realism is doubtless the most non-Caucasian cast in Hollywood Bible movie history."

Greydanus is especially impressed with Oscar Isaac's performance as Joseph, saying his "sensitive, compelling performance gives depth and humanity to the relatively obscure figure St. Matthew describes simply as 'a righteous man.'" He says the film's faults "tend to be of omission rather than commission," but predicts it will be a family favorite for years to come.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says "Hollywood finally gets it right with The Nativity Story. It's an] artful, reverent and deeply affecting retelling. … The film's hopeful message should resonate beyond Christian audiences to a world still groaning for peace and good will."

Frederica Matthewes-Green (, originally at Beliefnet), says, "If you thought Hollywood was incapable of approaching Christians without a cattle prod, you'll be shocked at how circumspect this movie is. … There is nothing in this film to offend devout Christians (parents note, however, a PG rating for some glimpses of crucifixion)—but solemnity rolls through it all like molasses."

Matthewes-Green is especially disappointed in Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary. "[S]he just seems disengaged. Some astounding and even terrifying things are happening to Mary, but Castle-Hughes looks like her mind is somewhere else." But she has higher praise for Oscar Isaac as Joseph and Terry Russof as an insightful shepherd.

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "Straightforward. That's perhaps the best word to describe The Nativity Story. Sweet and respectful work, too. But never grand or ambitious, as fans of biblical epics might wish for. A few too many British-leaning accents, a few too few visual effects and a script that serves its purpose well but doesn't burst into color onscreen all conspire to push the film into that 'just another Bible movie' category. … They almost succeed. But not quite."

Matt Page (Bible Films), calling the film "more good than bad," says, "[D]espite its uniqueness, it can't quite decide what kind of bible film it wants to be. The title suggests a mythic retelling, perhaps aimed at the family, yet the early scenes have a gritty, realistic feel to them. Later on though the film morphs into a sort of road movie. … Then it changes gear yet again once the holy couple reaches Bethlehem. The last remaining vestiges of realism are swiftly ditched and out comes a touch of the Christmas magic. … It's not that there is anything particularly wrong with any of these different styles; it just leads to a very uneven film."

Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says it's "a movie with everything:drama, action, romance, history, and miracles—a sure bet to edge out the shallow, same old 'pretend-Christmas' offerings."

Michael Brunk (Past the Popcorn) says, "[I]t's not actually a bad movie. It's just not as good as it could have, or perhaps should have, been."

Sister Rose Pacatte, F.S.P. (St. Anthony Messenger) says Mike Rich's script "reaches inside the minds and hearts of the characters and makes them real for us. The Magi provide some comic relief. The story of Jesus' birth is layered with meaning so that the youngest child to the wisest of adults can experience Christmas anew. … This film is certain to be a classic for all Christians, even though the nativity scene … looks as if it was lifted off a Christmas card. A little more subtlety would have been my preference."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says, "[T]he movie's best scenes involve [Mary] and Joseph trying to make sense of their circumstances." He also raves about Isaac's performance as Joseph: "Isaac owns the movie. Saying very little, the Juilliard graduate brilliantly expresses what must surely have been Joseph's doubt, anger and fear. [He] provides Christ-like traits before, during and after the film's manger climax."

Mainstream critics
are turning in mixed reviews. At Rotten Tomatoes, an average of 107 reviews comes up with a "rotten" rating of 41 percent (anything less than 60 percent is deemed rotten). But the "Cream of the Crop" reviews—notable critics from North America's top media outlets—are at 58 percent, just shy of the "fresh" rating.

A.O. Scott of The New York Times says the film "sticks to the familiar details of the narrative and dramatizes them with sincerity and good taste. There are no flights of actorly or cinematic bravura—though all of the performances are credible, and some better than that—and very few big, showy, epic gestures. Rather than trying to reinterpret or modernize a well-known, cherished story, the filmmakers have rendered it with a quiet, unassuming professionalism."

But Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly says, "The movie industry is eager to beckon and serve Christian viewers, yet as long as it thinks of those viewers as another market slice, a demo, it may end up pandering to them with cautious and stultifying reverence. The Nativity Story is a film of tame picture-book sincerity, but that's not the same thing as devotion. The movie is too tepid to feel, or see, the light."