Old Time Religion

Bible Flicks Move Beyond the B-List

When it comes to Hollywood and films about faith, God and mammon are both finding devotees.

The best performing film of the year may well turn out to be a low-budget feature whose biggest star is a B-level TV actor. “God’s Not Dead,” featuring Kevin “Hercules” Sorbo, cost $2 million to make, and so far has grossed a whopping $60 million.

Produced by Pure Flix, a Christian-oriented film company, “God’s Not Dead” stars Sorbo as a domineering professor who demands all his students disavow the existence of God, and is then challenged by a devout Christian. Although it received a dismal 17% positive rating on rottentomatoes.com — one critic said “The Almighty deserves better advocacy than he gets in this typically ham-fisted Christian campus melodrama — ‘God’s Not Dead’ obviously appealed to a large, faith-based audience. And that audience is attracting more and more attention, not just from the Christian film industry — which seems to have determined that God and mammon can co-exist — but from Hollywood studios as well.

“Everyone realized there is a tremendous faith-based market that came out to see Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’,” says Bill Riead, writer/director of “The Letters,” an upcoming film about Mother Teresa. “If nothing else gets Hollywood’s attention, it’s money. I think they realized that there was a market they had been missing since the ’50s, when the Biblical films came out.” “Passion” grossed over $370 million in 2004.

“Since ‘The Passion,’ faith-based audiences have been big fish for the studios, and if you can convince pastors and clergy to buy blocks of tickets, you can make a lot of money,” adds Alissa Wilkinson, head film critic for Christianity Today. “The Bible stories, even if you’re not religious, you know the basic outline, and these properties haven’t been remade since the golden age of the studios. I think those two things are coming together.”

This year alone, “Son of God,” a film version of the hit History Channel miniseries “The Bible,” and distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox, grossed $59 million. “Heaven Is For Real,” based on the Todd Burpo bestseller, was budgeted at $12 million and took in $91 million. Released by TriStar, a division of Sony Pictures, it opened in over 2,000 theaters — nearly as many as your average Hollywood blockbuster — and earned $22 million its opening weekend, second only to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” And director Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” a Paramount release, although somewhat of a disappointment with $101 million in domestic gross, still managed to rack up over $350 million globally.

Numbers like these mean the Bible and faith-based pipeline is now turning out films faster than plagues descended on Pharaoh's Egypt. “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” a big budget retelling of the Moses story, with Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton, directed by Ridley Scott, will be released in December by Fox, the same month Bill Riead’s film, which stars Juliet Stevenson, Rutger Hauer and Max von Sydow, debuts. “Mary,” the story of Jesus’ mother, with Julia Ormond and Ben Kingsley, will be released by Lionsgate early next year. “Left Behind,” based on the bestselling series of novels about the Rapture, with Nicolas Cage starring, will be in theaters in October. And “When the Game Stands Tall,” an inspirational football film starring Jim Caviezel, opens later this month.

Matt Crouch, director of such faith-based films as “The Omega Code” and “One Night with the King,” says a key factor in this new wave of spiritual films is that in the case of productions like “Noah” and “Heaven Is For Real,” “These were made by very talented, experienced, and successful content creators – Darren Aronofsky, Randall Wallace, Mark Burnett – who for whatever reasons chose to explore faith-based, Biblical subject matter. This is very good because it raises the profile of these religious-themed projects. The fact that producers and directors that are each brands unto themselves are making these types of films is also part of why this is happening, and why they are reaching larger and broader audiences.”

Fact is, the Christian-oriented film scene has been around for years, but for a long time it produced didactic movies with B-level actors (think Kirk Cameron) and barely professional production values. Many of these movies were screened exclusively by churches and other faith-based organizations, and the few that did manage to attract mainstream distribution were often critically panned, and failed at the box office.

That was then. This is now.

“I always said that the Christian movie industry will be like the Christian music industry, but 20 years behind,” says David A.R. White, managing director of Pure Flix. “Music started taking off in the ’80s, and now I believe with Christian films the quality of the scripts, cast and production values has increased, and continues to increase on an ongoing basis. There have been good Christian faith-based films, like ‘Soul Surfer,’ [a 2011 film distributed by TriStar Pictures, a Sony subsidiary], but they’re more consistent now.”

The success of faith-based films has also encouraged several Hollywood studios to set up their own spiritual divisions, although with mixed results. FoxFaith, established in 2006 by Twentieth Century-Fox, flew under the radar for awhile, and died a quick death. But Sony’s Affirm Films has had success with “Heaven Is For Real,” “Soul Surfer,” “The Mighty Macs” and is involved with “When the Game Stands Tall.”

Rich Peluso, senior vice president at Affirmed, says the studio connection is a real plus, since “what the studio provides is a really integrated, and international, distribution strategy, and the producers we work with experience an incredible advantage. The studio provides an incredible foundation for expanding the reach of our product.”

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The audience for all these films seems to come primarily from the church-going community, but also is composed of what Wilkinson refers to as “this burgeoning but not religious spiritual category. That kind of programming has worked on TV in shows like ‘Touched By An Angel.’ ‘Heaven Is For Real’ does similar things, it’s not there to evangelize, it’s just this belief in an afterlife, and a lot of people can get onboard with that, and it crosses a lot of borders from evangelical Christians to Catholics and beyond. It’s a segment that likes these more inspirational films.”

Julie E. Byrne, a religion professor at Hofstra University, also sees a political tinge to the faith-based audience. “ I think there’s a mood of reaction [to the Obama administration and progressive issues] that’s evidenced in Tea Party activism,” she says, “that is going to keep getting stronger and edgier for awhile. And I think you will see things representing a conservative Christian outlook having more ‘oomph’ for awhile.”

Whether the faith-based wave will be a long-term trend, or just another Hollywood flavor of the month remains to be seen.

“I first came to Hollywood in 1993, banging on doors, and trying to tell everyone that there is a massive market out there of people who are passionate about their faith and what they believe, and if Hollywood would start catering to them, Hollywood would find that this faith-based world isn’t just a potential niche, but would prove larger than what’s considered the mainstream,” said Crouch. “That was over 20 years ago, and what we’re seeing today is that train picking up steam and investors and distributors joining in.”