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Bible movies to 'flood' screens, return religious films to the box office this year

Published: Thursday, Feb. 20 2014 8:00 a.m. MST

Jesus (Diogo Morgado) greets his followers.

Casey Crafford, LightWorkers Media Inc.

Ten years after Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" electrified audiences and reminded Hollywood's largest studios of the box office potential of movies with a religious theme, a new wave of Bible-related films is poised to flood theaters this year.

First up is "Son of God," a two-hour movie highlighting key events in Jesus' life, ministry and death, to open nationally on Feb. 28 after a publicity buildup specifically aimed at Christians.

That will be followed by two more feature films retelling the well-known Old Testament stories of Noah and "Exodus," featuring the great flood and Moses leading the children of Israel from Egypt.

Is the 2014 release of Bible-themed films a trend? "It certainly looks like it," said Elijah Davidson, co-director of the Reel Spirituality Program at Fuller Seminary's Brehm Center for Worship and the Arts in Pasadena, Calif. "There are more of these films coming out this year than we have normally seen."

But the reasons for Hollywood's recent embrace of the Bible vary from seeing the good book as a vehicle for great storytelling to a more deliberate purpose of using the powerful medium of film to spread a religious message.

Mark Burnett, producer of the "Son of God," said he expects the film "to be a conversation starter" and noted the story has an inherent drama some principals may not have imagined. "The disciples didn't know they were going to end up in the Bible," he said. "They were merely following Jesus."

Sacred, secular inspiration

The theatrical release of "Son of God" has its roots in the hugely popular 2013 TV miniseries "The Bible." Both are the creation of reality-show pioneer Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey, who portrays Mary, the mother of Jesus, in both projects. Downey is no stranger to faith-based themes, having originated the role of "Monica," an angel who intervenes in earthly situations in "Touched by an Angel," a drama series that ran for nine seasons on CBS.

Diogo Morgado, the Portuguese actor who portrayed Jesus in "The Bible" miniseries returns to the same role in "Son of God." During a recent screening of the film in Washington, D.C., Downey and Burnett said the idea for the movie began when they were filming the miniseries, and additional scenes were shot specifically for the movie.

"As we were shooting 'The Bible,' we knew there was another story in here," Downey said, with that story ending up as the new movie.

"Son of God" will be followed by the March 28 opening of "Noah," starring Russell Crowe as the title character.

"Noah" has attracted interest not only because of Crowe — whose first paid acting job was in a short film advertising the theology program of Avondale College, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Australia — but also because the story line allegedly doesn't hew closely to the Bible's story.

Even as it began production, "Noah" drew barbs: Brian Godawa, screenwriter of faith-related films "To End All Wars" and "Alleged," wrote a widely read 2012 blog post alleging the film uses the Bible to make a modern environmental point: "Noah paints the primeval world of Genesis 6 as scorched arid desert, dry cracked earth, and a gray gloomy sky that gives no rain — and all this, caused by man’s 'disrespect' for the environment. In short, an anachronistic doomsday scenario of ancient global warming."

Paramount Pictures, which reportedly invested $125 million in "Noah's" production, isn't saying much about the film, according to Grace Hill Media, the faith-focused publicity firm helping with marketing.

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