Like the animals on Noah’s ark, ideas in Hollywood often come in twos: One giant asteroid movie or adaptation of a dystopian YA novel makes a fortune, another one gets greenlit. So when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ stunned the film industry in 2004 by grossing $612 million worldwide, you’d have thought every studio executive in town would have had an instant come-to-Jesus moment and ordered up a biblical blockbuster. But for a film industry regarded by some Christians as a moral cesspool, creating a Bible movie as credible as Passion — which had been made outside the studio system by a devout believer — was about as easy as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. While Bible heroes routinely strode across the big screen in the 1950s and ’60s, Hollywood had long since lost the know-how to make and market films for the faithful, says Jonathan Bock, founder and president of the faith-based marketing firm Grace Hill Media: “If a studio executive turned around the Monday morning after Passion opened and said, ‘I want a Passion of the Christ!’ — you might as well have said, ‘I want a movie about Peruvian farmers!’”
Well, to every thing there is a season, as the good book says. This year will see the release of three major movies drawn from the pages of the Bible — a veritable flood by recent standards. In addition to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (out March 28), there’s Son of God (out Feb. 28), a retelling of the life of Jesus Christ based on last year’s smash History channel miniseries The Bible, and Ridley Scott’s swords-and-sandals epic Exodus, arriving on Dec. 12 with Christian Bale as Moses.
While the industry may be experiencing a religious awakening of sorts, its relationship with the faith community has been fraught with tension and mutual distrust. The path forward is hardly certain. “It’s uncharted territory,” says DeVon Franklin, senior vice president of production at Columbia Tristar Pictures and, as it happens, a Christian minister. “I know a number of Christians still feel like ‘Does Hollywood really value me? Do they really want me to show up at a film?’ And Hollywood sometimes says, ‘We want to, but we’re just not sure how to do it.’”
In the wake of Passion, Hollywood took immediate, if cautious, steps to reach out to a demographic it had often largely dismissed as flyover country. A few studios launched faith-oriented divisions, including FoxFaith and Sony’s Affirm Films, acquiring modestly budgeted Christian-friendly movies (e.g., the inspirational football film Facing the Giants and the Kirk Cameron firefighter movie Fireproof) and releasing them in a handful of markets or directly to DVD. The industry expanded its efforts, enlisting marketing consultants like Bock and screening films at one of a smattering of large Christian conferences. “Folks in Hollywood wisely realized that there’s a large audience there, and they were smart to start increasing the supply,” says Julie Fairchild, who co-runs a faith-based marketing and publicity company in Dallas. “Christians do go to the movies — and their money is green.”
Yet for every successful attempt to tap into the faith community — such as 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and 2009’s The Blind Side, both of which drew strong Christian followings — there has been a misfire. The 2006 Bible drama The Nativity Story failed to connect with its intended audience, perhaps because some Christians were uncomfortable with the fact that the actress playing the Virgin Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) became pregnant out of wedlock just after shooting. Ambitions to lure churchgoers to watch Steve Carell grow a beard and build an ark in the 2007 comedy Evan Almighty flopped mightily, with many seeing the film — which ended with a stone tablet being turned over to reveal an 11th Commandment, “Thou Shalt Do the Dance” — as not just unfunny but un-Christian. “Obviously there’s some pushback,” says Christian-media consultant Phil Cooke. “There are some areas of the Christian community where they’re thinking, ‘[Hollywood’s] just trying to make money off Christians.’”