Rebirth of the Biblical Epic: Hollywood Rekindles Romance With Evangelical Christians, and Their Wallets

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By Nicola Menzie , Christian Post Reporter
October 27, 2013|10:55 am
  • jesus the bible
    (Photo: Joe Alblas)
    Jesus carries the cross to Golgotha in The History Channel's "The Bible" on Sunday, March 31, 2013.

Noah, Moses, Jesus and Mary — and possibly even Cain and Abel, too, will all have their stories re-told by some of Hollywood's biggest names as filmmakers find themselves once again turning to the Bible for inspiration — and to the U.S. Christian market's more than 90 million evangelicals for a profit.

Before Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's smash hit "The Bible" series aired on The History Channel earlier this year, there were already rumors and reports that director Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan," "The Wrestler") was working on "Noah." Director Ridley Scott also had spilled the beans in an Esquire interview the year prior about his designs for a new telling of Moses, and about his disdain for religion, that would rival Warner Brothers' "Gods and Kings," another Moses epic reportedly being considered by director Ang Lee since Steven Spielberg dropped the project.

Hollywood husband-and-wife duo Burnett ("Survivor," "The Voice") and Downey ("Touched by an Angel") broke ratings records this Spring for the History Channel by drawing more than 100 million viewers to the cable network's telecast of "The Bible" series. The five-part miniseries also became the top-selling TV series of all time across Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital HD formats, a boon for distributor 20th Century Fox. The groundbreaking TV project was even nominated for three Emmy awards, which Downey perceived as acknowledgement of the quality of the series.

"We were nominated for Best Miniseries, so that was very validating," Downey told The Christian Post before the Sept. 22 awards broadcast revealed "The Bible" series' loss to HBO's "Behind the Candelabra."

"The success of ratings was great, but it was also after having poured our hearts and souls into making this, to have our peer group acknowledge the hard work and the quality — because I think you can have good intentions to make anything, but if it isn't well-told…and with 'The Bible' series, we really tried to get the very best," she added, crediting the entire production cast and crew for their work. "It was a quality production of a great story really well-told."

It probably did not hurt that Burnett and Downey are Christians (one Protestant, the other Roman Catholic) and used their connections with some of U.S. evangelical Christianity's biggest names (Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and T.D. Jakes to name a few) to make sure word got out and that the faithful tuned in, and boy did they tune in.

The History Channel had never seen such viewer numbers in all its 18-year history, and even experienced a sudden boost in reputation among Christians thanks to the series. Now, NBC is hoping to ride "The Bible" series' wave of success, after losing the bidding war for the original series, with a follow-up production slated to pick up where "The Bible" left off. The project, tentatively titled "AD: Beyond the Bible," "could conceivably attract an even bigger crowd than did the original, by virtue of moving to broadcast TV," according to Deadline.

Eying an even bigger wave, "The Bible" series team also has teamed up with 20th Century Fox for distribution of "Son of God," a pared-down theatrical feature of the 10-hour series' Jesus narrative that could hit theaters next Spring.

As conservative family entertainment website Movieguide.com shows with its list of "Top Biblical Epics," the Bible has long been an inspiration for filmmakers big and small, foreign and domestic (1964 Italian film "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" is no. 1, with Disney's "Prince of Egypt" ranked as no. 3). But, as the list also shows, the closer filmmakers stick to "the script" (the Biblical text), the more likely the project is to be a hit. And it doesn't hurt if Christians helm the projects.

Phil Cooke, who helps churches and nonprofits "not suck at the media" through Cooke Pictures, has worked alongside Grace Hill Media, a major marketing bridge between big studios and Christians. He has advised filmmakers on how to reach that core Christian audience.

Cooke, who has been called "the only working producer in Hollywood with a Ph.D. in Theology," schooled The Christian Post on the history of Bible-based films.

"In the early part of the 20th century, roughly 1899-1914, the Church actually produced more movies than Hollywood," the director/producer told CP via email. "Hollywood caught up, and when more overt sexual, violence, and crude behavior became more popular in Hollywood films, the Church eventually back(ed) away leaving a void."

Cooke added that, over the years, "there were a few significant Christian attempts" to rekindle the romance between Hollywood and Bible-based feature films.

Not "until Mel Gibson's 'Passion of the Christ' did we see a Christian-driven film get such attention from Hollywood," said Cooke. "I think the entire film industry was rather shocked to learn there was such a large audience that took their faith seriously and wanted to see films that did the same.

"Now, we're simply seeing the rebirth of what happened in the early days of the movie business. Obviously some of the projects aren't terribly well produced, but we're seeing enough success that Hollywood has been impressed by the response."

"The Passion of the Christ" has grossed more than $611 million worldwide and remains the top-grossing Christian film of all time. Not long after Gibson's 2004 feature starring an effective Jim Caviezel as Jesus, headlines buzzed about Hollywood's rekindled interest in the Christian market. There was even a panel discussion at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival on "What Would Jesus… Direct?" A report on the panel claimed the "religious product market is an $8 billion a year business," while 2011 figures suggest that Christians in the U.S. spend $1.5 trillion annually.

According to Movieguide.com, films with a faith-based theme or that reflect conservative content or values generally tend to do better at the box office. The Christian-led company reported in a recent study that movies with faith-based elements on average made four times as much money in ticket sales as their raunchy counterparts.

  • A quick search on Google Images yields dozens of Bible-inspired movies done over the years, spanning several decades.
    (Photo: Google Images via The Christian Post)
    A quick search on Google Images yields dozens of Bible-inspired movies done over the years, spanning several decades.

"Every studio now has a Christian film division, and several studios are doing major movies with strong Christian content. And now all of the major studios, not just Disney, are making movies for young children and families," Movieguide founder and publisher Dr. Ted Baehr told Fox News last year.

"It's impacted low budget filmmakers for years," Cooke told CP when asked for his thoughts on how Hollywood's move into the faith-based market has affected low-budget Christian filmmakers.

"Most have failed because of inexperience, or trying too hard to deliver a message than tell a great story," Cooke added. "But now there are distribution options that didn't exist 10 years ago."

Cooke, one of many prominent Christians with influence in Hollywood (some others include DeVon Franklin, T.D. Jakes, and Tyler Perry), said Christians need to get past the perception that Hollywood hates them.

"They're just clueless about us," he said.

"After all, Hollywood is a business and their first priority is to make a profit. So in most cases they're very open to advice about Christian values, storylines, and ideas — if it will help them reach a larger audience."

While admiring the success of "The Bible" series, Cooke could not help but wonder why secular media was so off base when it came to understanding the television series' impact.

"The week Mark Burnett's 'The Bible' series broke all audience records, I received calls from 3 of the largest news organizations in America," Cooke told CP. "All (were) absolutely baffled that anyone would be interested in watching a TV program about the Bible.

"They weren't against it, it was just shocking to them. I had to remind them that over the years, Hollywood has bent over backwards to cater to often remarkably small special interest groups — environmentalist, feminists, the gay community, and others. But Pew Research says that there are more than 91 million evangelical Christians in the United States, which makes us the largest 'special interest' group of all. If nothing else than purely business, it's time Hollywood understood just how much buying power that represents."

Downey, speaking to CP last month, mirrored Cooke in her remarks.

"I think there's clearly a huge audience out there that I believe has been underserved," she said. "And if the success of 'The Bible' series means that now they will be catered to, I think that's good news."

Hollywood seems to be in tune with the message — if you keep making it, they will keep coming, as the long list of expected Bible-based films, such as "Noah," "Exodus" and "Gods and Kings" show.

The next frontier for Hollywood in regard to Bible-based films may be, as some film buffs have noted, being more ethnically diverse, and accurate, in casting choices for Biblical figures, especially Old Testament characters tied to the Ancient Near East that mostly corresponds to today's Middle East.

For example, Ridley Scott's Moses biopic, "Exodus," features all white actors in the lead roles (Christian Bale plays Moses while Joel Edgerton portrays Pharaoh Ramses), similar to Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 longtime favorite, "The Ten Commandments" starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner.

While Hollywood may indeed be looking longingly again to its old paramour, filmmakers seem intent on continuing to paint some of history's most influential and powerful stories with whitewash.

 

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