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Hollywood looks to Bible for 2014 blockbusters

March 23, 2014 Updated: March 23, 2014 at 8:54 am
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Friday, gladiator Russell Crowe will take on two of his more formidable cinematic challenges to date: a diluvial apocalypse and a nation of movie-going Christians eager - and a little wary - to see what version of Noah Hollywood has chosen to float their way.

Test screenings last year of early edits of Paramount Pictures' $130 million retelling of the Old Testament story sparked controversy and complaints that the character Noah's relationship with God and other vital scriptural aspects were downplayed in favor of a biblically false celluloid depiction of the hero as the "world's first environmentalist." Skepticism about Tinseltown's commitment to biblical integrity with "Noah" and the host of other religious-themed movies due to hit theaters this year was enough to prompt one Christian advocacy group to stage a preemptive strike. In February, the North Carolina-based Faith Driven Consumers drafted an open letter encouraging the industry not to alienate the faithful by tampering with sacrosanct story lines.

"To Faith Driven Consumers, changing a Biblical story like Noah by superimposing a revisionist message does not make the story more compelling," wrote Chris Stone, whose group claims to represent an estimated 46 million Christian consumers who collectively spend $1.75 trillion annually. "People of faith generally, and Faith Driven Consumers specifically, are the core audience for 'Noah' and other films in this genre. . As such, our community is deeply engaged on this topic."

In response to concerns and pressure from Christian groups, filmmakers reputedly tweaked the film and added a statement to promotional material explaining that the work is "inspired by" the biblical story of Noah and is "not a line-by-line retelling."


Recipe for a blockbuster

It remains to be seen how that final cut of "Noah" will resonate with greater audiences for its biblical or creative content, but one thing is certain: The conversation about God in the movies will continue throughout 2014, which is being dubbed "Hollywood's Year of the Bible Movie" due to the unusually high number of big- and small-budget religious-themed films planned for wide release.

In addition to "Noah," "Exodus," directed by Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale as Moses, is queued up for December; "Son of God," the condensed, theatrical version of the "The Bible" miniseries that aired in 2013 on cable's History Channel, opened in late February. Quieter films are generating healthy buzz too, including "Heaven Is For Real," starring Academy Award-nominated actor Greg Kinnear, and "God's Not Dead," with Willie Robertson of "Duck Dynasty" fame.

"I've been here 22 years and this is the most faith-based films I've ever seen released in a single year," said Bob Waliszewski, a former youth pastor and the director of Plugged In, Focus on the Family's media and entertainment wing. "There are maybe 10 faith-based films coming out this year, when you typically see two or three in a year. This phenomenon is kind of a cool thing, as long as they do it right."

For Christian audiences, that "if" could pose a potential deal-breaker.

The Bible and the big screen have long shared a lucrative and occasionally uneasy stage. Since the dawn of Hollywood, movie makers have mined the best-selling book of all time for its cinematic subject matter, and understandably so. Many Bible stories fit the basic blockbuster recipe: grand drama, sweeping action and accessible heroes familiar to both secular and church-going audiences. Old Testament epics such as Cecil B. Demille's groundbreaking 1923 film "The Ten Commandments" allowed Hollywood to showcase its burgeoning skills in special effects, set design and cinematography. Bible movies also made money. DeMille's original "Commandments" was one of the highest-grossing films of the silent era. His 1956 remake of the story of Moses - the Charlton Heston-helmed version better known to modern audiences - was one of the more successful films ever made and, with dollars adjusted for inflation, still stands among the top 10 highest grossing films of all time.

Scripture and biblical themes have been exploited for laughs (Mel Brooks' "The History of the World: Part I") and for scares ("The Exorcist"), and God himself has been portrayed by everyone from comedian George Burns ("Oh, God,") to singer Alanis Morissette ("Dogma").


Looking at the bottom line

Waliszewski attributes the current trend to a single flashpoint: Mel Gibson's independently produced 2004 movie "The Passion of the Christ," which cost $30 million to make and went on to gross more than $612 million worldwide.

"You can't argue with $612 million," he said. "I think Hollywood saw that, if done right, the Christian community will step up to the plate. It has the potential to do well financially, which is the bottom line for Hollywood. I think we have studios now that have green-lighted products they would have passed on prior to 'The Passion of the Christ.'"

A more recent inspirational model was Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's refashioning of their TV miniseries into a big screen version, with big screen prices. The 10-hour History Channel show drew record audiences throughout its five-day run and within the first week of release on DVD became the top-selling miniseries of all time. "Son of God," which focuses on the life of Jesus, earned $26.5 million its opening weekend.

"Last year for free at Easter anybody with cable could see that. Now people are paying 10 bucks per ticket to see it," said Waliszewski, whose own organization, Focus On the Family, has delved into the movie business and plans to roll out a series of inspirational documentaries for limited big screen engagements later in the spring.

"I think it's all about the potential dollars, and they (studios) believe that they missed it the last time around and they don't want to miss it this time around. What I'm afraid of is that 'Noah' might fail at the box office and then the studios will go, 'Oh there's apparently no longer a market among the people of faith.'"

A fine crop of smaller-budget, Christian-themed films are heading to theaters this year and have attracted heartier-than-usual anticipation, perhaps because - unlike most religious genre fare - they first attracted famous names.

"I think getting A-list actors is spot on, even if personally they don't share the faith, so long as the story and script are respectful to the text. There are movies where it may have been a good film, but I didn't recognize anybody in it. Maybe the church community showed up, but a lot of people stayed home because nobody recognized anybody in it," Waliszewski said.

Films bearing the Hollywood stamp have the potential to spread a religious message to a wider audience and, ideally, draw new converts to the faith, he said.

"Sometimes the only 'church' people will ever attend will be in their local theater," said Waliszewski, who plans to screen "Noah" this week and post his review midnight Thursday on the Plugged In website.

He's done his background work but intends to walk into the movie with an open mind.

"If a story from the Bible is done well and done accurately, the Christian community will support it," he said. "You can add extra biblical text as conversations between characters, for example, so long as it's not contradictory to the Bible."

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