Three years after 'The Passion of the Christ' made Mel Gibson a fortune, movie studios rush to cash in on the Christian market. Will audiences buy it?
By Sean Smith
Updated: 5:41 p.m. ET Nov 10, 2006
Almost three years after Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” grossed $612 million worldwide, Hollywood has begun to court the Christian audience. This September, 20th Century Fox announced that its video-only division, Fox Faith, will now distribute as many as 12 faith-focused movies in theaters each year. “One Night With The King,” a low-budget indie film about the Biblical story of Esther, landed on screens in October and has quietly grossed more than $10 million so far. And, in the spirit of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, Warner Bros. home video recently released “Thou Shalt Laugh,” a night of stand-up from Christian comics. (And yes, it’s actually funny.) All of this attention would seem to mean great news for the faithful--and great profits for studios. But just because the studios have decided to sell entertainment to Christians doesn’t mean Christians are buying. It’s hard to imagine a wider culture gap than the one between rich, secular, Blue State liberals and middle-class, religious, Red State conservatives. That, coupled with a long history of neglect and distrust, may make the film industry’s journey to profits through Christ surprisingly perilous. “There’s a stereotype that comes out of Hollywood that the vast majority of Christians are right-wing idiots,” says Pastor Rich Wilkerson of Trinity Church in Miami. “That’s pretty close-minded. I mean, there’s a lot of idiots in every category.”
Prior to Gibson’s “Passion,” Hollywood had for decades largely ignored—or offended—the Christian audience. In the last 20 years, one of the few major studio films to use the Bible as source material was Martin Scorsese’s 1988 lightning rod, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which speculated that Jesus lusted for Mary Magdalene. “People are still tweaked over ‘Last Temptation,’ and more recently ‘The Da Vinci Code’” says Matthew Crouch, of Trinity Broadcast Network fame, who produced and distributed “One Night with the King.” “Those movies are heresy to some pastors. We don’t burn people at the stake for that anymore, but it still kindles the same kind of rage.” It doesn’t help that the big studios that now want to create faith-friendly content also flood the world’s screens with sex and violence. “Movies are teaching tools,” says Lotz. “And what most of these young minds are seeing today is not wholesome, and in the long run it can be destructive. So when Hollywood makes a movie like ‘Nativity,’ I’m grateful, but I’m still skeptical about the next film that comes down the pike.” If studio executives want to make sure they’re creating the right films for Christians, Lotz suggests that, “they read their Bibles, or get in contact with somebody who knows God.”
"Nativity" feels like an antidote to the garish Biblical epics of the 1950s such as “Ben Hur,” and “The Ten Commandments.” Direted by Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen”), it's an intimate, character-driven depiction of what it must have been like for a teenage Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) to learn that she is chosen by God to bear the Savior, and the struggle that she and her betrothed husband, Joseph (Oscar Isaac), endure as they are rejected by their village of Nazareth and set forth on a 110-mile journey to Bethlehem. The hand of God is not seen through trumpet blasts or winged angels, but through changes in wind and light. It feels simple and honest. “Christian audiences are a powerful demographic, without question, but they’re also discerning,” says “Nativity” screenwriter Mike Rich. “They’re not going to be led to a movie simply because it’s important spiritually. The movie has to be good.”
Even when it is, somebody still has to get Chrisitans to see it. That somebody, often, is Jonathan Bock, who has become the guru for studios trying to reach the faith-based community. As president of Grace Hill Media, Bock, a Christian himself, has one foot in both worlds, and helps studios by working as both cultural translator and marketing expert on films such as “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and now “Nativity.” He says that bridging the gap between Hollywood and Christians isn’t always easy. “Frankly, there’s a lot of ignorance of one another, and a lot of preconceived notions,” he says. The year 2004 proved to be an annus horriblus in this respect. Gibson’s “Passion” stirred up charges of anti-Semitism and generated enmity toward Hollywood, which had largely snubbed the film. The Republican sweep in the election later that year left the film industry feeling battered and defiant. “A lot of folks in Hollywood went into a deep depression,” Bock says. But it also began to turn the tide. “While some of those folks sulked off with their lattes, a couple of the smart ones went, ‘Who is this audience that we don’t know, but who clearly has a lot of influence?”
According to Gallup polls in recent years, 80 percent of Americans consider themselves Christian to some degree and 59 percent (177 million) attend religious services at least once a month. “For a studio to not know who those people are is like saying, ‘Oh, we don’t make movies for men',” Bock says, laughing. But while it’s easy to thump Hollywood for failing to pan for gold in the pews, some of the blame can also be laid at the feet of Christian leadership. “Twenty-first century Christians have lost the idea of story,” says David McFadzean, a Christian who executive produced the film “What Women Want” and the TV series “Home Improvement.” “All the major religions, down through the ages, are communicated through story. We should be right at home in Hollywood.” Televangelism aside, the religious right has historically failed to embrace mass media or harness the power of film to its own advantage. “It was almost as if people of faith had taken sanctuary inside the four walls of the church, hiding from the culture,” says Crouch, whose company, Gener8Xion Entertainment, also produced the end-of-days films “The Omega Code” and “Megiddo: The Omega Code 2.” “Now, I feel like our generation is no longer hiding, but is squarely at the crossroads where faith and culture meet. It’s such a new day.”
In part. One of the biggest challenges still facing Christian filmmaking is the perception that it is dour, proselytizing, direct-to-video schlock. “Godsploitation films,” Bock calls them, and they’re so predictable that some jokesters have compared them to porn movies—they’re shot on a shoestring, the acting is terrible and you always know how they’re going to end. “But most moviegoing Christians don’t want more preaching,” says Bock, who also produced “Thou Shalt Laugh.” “They want great movies with big stars that are respectful and reverent to their faith. The goal is the creation of another renaissance where Christian artists aren’t just making art, they’re making what everyone can regard as great art.” Almost everyone seems to agree that the next step for religious filmmaking is to move beyond literal or allegorical adaptations of Bible stories and to instead incorporate the lessons and values of Christianity into films on almost any subject. Crouch's company motto could easily become the mantra for this entire genre of filmmaking: “We don’t produce movies about faith,” he says. “We produce movies that don’t violate people’s faith.”
The Christian leadership is eager to embrace it. Studios with faith-friendly films routinely take their faith-friendly films on pastor-screening tours. Last December, Disney’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”—an allusion, in part, to the Resurrection—was marketed from the pulpit, and racked up $744 million worldwide. “A senior pastor playing a trailer for a movie or telling a congregation to support a movie is the single most important thing in any marketing plan,” Crouch says. In the case of both “Passion” and “Narnia,” many churches even bought out entire theaters and gave tickets to their members. Lotz says her church has already rented a 275-seat theater for the opening night of “Nativity.” From the beginning, New Line and the filmmakers have taken extraordinary measures to ensure that the film is biblically faithful and historically accurate, and it has paid off even bigger than they could have hoped. On Nov. 26, “The Nativity Story” will be the first film in history to have its premiere at the Vatican. Now that’s an endorsement.