LOS ANGELES — In many quarters, Hollywood has long been regarded as an essentially godless place. But judging by the offerings at the movies this season, and more in the works, Tinseltown is rediscovering religion.
In the span of just a few weeks starting in late August, audiences looking for God at their local multiplex have had their choice of titles, including "Higher Ground," a chronicle of one woman's struggle with her faith; "Seven Days in Utopia," an inspirational golf drama; and "Machine Gun Preacher," about an evangelist who takes up arms in Africa.
And the onslaught isn't slowing down. "Courageous," about policemen wrestling with their faith after a tragedy, opened recently. Emilio Estevez's "The Way," about a father on a religious pilgrimage, has been released in some markets.
These films follow the success this spring of "Soul Surfer," about a Christian teen surfer's comeback after losing an arm to a shark. Released by Sony's TriStar division, the film brought in nearly $44 million at the U.S. box office.
In many cases, these movies are not filled with unknown actors; they star top performers such as Robert Duvall, Melissa Leo, Helen Hunt, Helen Mirren and Louis Gossett Jr. (all Oscar winners), plus Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen and Gerard Butler.
So why is Hollywood looking to a higher authority?
A confluence of factors — including the economic and social difficulties facing the country in the last few years, a desire among actors and directors for interesting roles and the success of 2009's rather religious "The Blind Side" — seem to be at work.
"We are doing some serious soul-searching as a nation, trying to decide who we are going to be and what we are going to stand for," said Craig Detweiler, director of the Center of Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University, which is affiliated with Churches of Christ. "I think that does take us back to ultimate questions, whether as filmmakers or audiences."
"Filmmakers," he added, "are understanding that spirituality can be a complicated rather than a simplifying aspect of rich drama. I think for actors, they also understand these are complex roles that are ripe for exploration. When you have Academy Award performers like Robert Duvall and Melissa Leo, these are not simple or stereotypical portraits" of Christians.
Emmy Award winner Kathy Baker appears in "Seven Days" and "Machine Gun," both times as a devout woman. Though she considers herself a spiritual person, she said she was drawn to the projects because they were both strong roles. And in the case of "Machine Gun," she had the opportunity to work with director Marc Forster. "You have this wonderful director who can do anything and you give him this great story that has to deal with international politics. It's only a coincidence to me that it's faith-based."
Baker said she believes that there are more faith-based films these days in part because religious people are eager to invest in them.
"This is a relatively new concept that different groups are funding indie films and stepping up and having the courage and the knowledge to say let's make a movie," she said. "'Seven Days in Utopia' was funded by some generous faith-based people who were very open about it. That's why it got made."
Of course, films about faith have been produced since cinema was in its infancy. Cecil B. DeMille, for example, directed numerous religious epics in the silent and sound eras, including 1927's "The King of Kings" and 1932's "The Sign of the Cross."
The 1950s were a particularly ripe time for epic religious dramas — including DeMille's "The Ten Commandments," as well as "Ben Hur" and "Quo Vadis" — plus other titles such as "Martin Luther," "The Nun's Story" and "The Robe."
In subsequent decades, Hollywood largely lost its appetite (and budgetary nerve) for such films. Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was a hit in 2004, but he made it on his own. After that and "The Blind Side," which earned $256 million in the U.S. and for which Sandra Bullock took home the lead actress Oscar last year, studios and independent filmmakers are taking a fresh look at spiritual stories.
Just last month, Gibson's production company inked a deal with Warner Bros. for a film about the life of Judah Maccabee, the warrior whose ancient victory is celebrated at Hanukkah. Warner Bros. also has a Moses movie in development, and producer Peter Chernin ("Rise of the Planet of the Apes") has a separate Moses project in the works for 20th Century Fox. Meanwhile, "Black Swan" director Darren Aronofsky is developing a film about the biblical figure Noah.
Rich Peluso, vice president of Affirm Films, the Sony Pictures division that acquires faith-based and inspirational films, said some in Hollywood still believe that the audience for religious-themed movies is limited to the Midwest and South.
"The reality is that the Christian population in Los Angeles, based on pure population size, is one of the largest populations of Christians in the country," he said. "In Seattle and Portland, we do extremely well with the faith-based populations there. And Chicago and New York. Faith-based films tend to do well where Christians are, and they tend to be everywhere."
Sony's TriStar division released "Courageous," the latest movie from the Christian filmmaking team of Alex and Stephen Kendrick.
The brothers are ministers at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. As kids, they loved making movies and decided films were a perfect vehicle to deliver their evangelical Christian message to a wider audience. In 2002, they founded Sherwood Films with $20,000 in donations from the church.
They made their debut in 2003 with "Flywheel," a drama about a shady car salesman who becomes a Christian after reaching a turning point in his life. They continued with 2006's "Facing the Giants," about a high school football coach in crisis who prays to God for help. In 2008, their film "Fireproof," a drama starring Kirk Cameron as a firefighter with a flagging marriage and an addiction to Internet porn who becomes a born-again Christian, was the highest-grossing indie film of the year, making $33.5 million.
"Our target audience is the faith audience first," said Alex Kendrick, who directs, edits and stars in the movies, while his brother produces; the two share writing duties. "But we realize with each of our previous movies there is a good bit of bleed-over and we do have a significant number of viewers who may not have a faith of their own."
"Courageous," which cost about $2 million to produce, revolves around four police officers and their commitment to their wives, children and God after one officer experiences a tragedy.
Alex Kendrick said that the filmmaking is "not so much a business but a way to reach people. We take two years to develop and we spend a great deal of time praying over it. Our church provides most of the volunteers to help make it happen."
Affirm, the Sony division, was actually born after Sony Pictures Home Entertainment acquired the Kendricks' "Facing the Giants" and released the film in theaters. "Giants" ultimately earned $10 million.
"With the success, it really got execs at Sony Pictures across the team to see this would be a space it would make sense to get into," Peluso said. Now, Affirm has a library of 20 films that it has acquired or produced.
Since completing "Courageous" last year, Alex Kendrick and his brother have written two books related to the drama, a novelization and a book addressing men's responsibilities as husbands and fathers.
"We are now praying about the next project," Kendrick said. "We're in a season of prayer where we say 'God, what do you want us to do next?'"