"First off, I want to thank God, because that's who I look up to. He has graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand.” So said actor Matthew McConaughey upon receiving the Best Actor Academy Award at last Sunday’s Oscars. Observers described this open expression of faith as an awkward moment at the ceremony, in that Hollywood sees itself as uneasy with religious expression.
That wasn’t always the case. Indeed, there was a time when public discussion of scripture, prayer and God were commonplace in our culture, and in film and television. Movies like “The Ten Commandments” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” presented scriptural stories with reverence and respect, and, for doing so, they were well-rewarded at the box office. They were also lauded by the Hollywood elite. Consider that 1959’s “Ben Hur” won 11 Academy Awards, a record that would stand until 1997.
Today, faithful depictions of religion don’t command anywhere near the same level of prestige. Ten years ago, critics dismissed “The Passion of the Christ” as a vanity project of director Mel Gibson. Defying the critics, the film went on to earn $370 million in ticket sales.
There’s a significant lesson here.
When the big studios are criticized for coarsening the culture, they say they are merely providing the public what it wants. The success of films like “The Passion of the Christ” demonstrated otherwise.
Now, artists of faith are finding ways to market stories from the scriptures to social-media savvy audiences.
With the very strong showing by “Son of God,” released in theaters on February 28 – and with big-budget films about “Noah” and “Exodus” scheduled for Easter and December – 2014 might turn out to be the year of the Bible-themed movie.
In an interview with Deseret News, the actress who portrayed Mary the mother of Jesus in “Son of God” spoke about the recent dearth of movies from the Bible.
“It's been almost a decade, exactly to the weekend, since ‘The Passion of the Christ’ came to the big screen, and it's been almost 50 years since the entire life of Jesus was told in a cinematic presentation, and that was ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’,” said Roma Downey, who in real life is married to the film’s producer Mark Burnett. Burnett is responsible both for the film and the 2013 miniseries, “The Bible,” upon which the movie is based.
“So we knew that there's a whole new generation that hadn't seen the story of Jesus presented in this way. I think that the movie is a movie for the ages. It's presenting His story, updated in a way that a contemporary audience expects. It's gritty. It's realistic.”
As part of the filmmakers’ efforts to ensure faithfulness to the historical record, they reached out to many in the Christian and Jewish communities. They went back to these people of faith to market and promote the film. Pastors throughout the country – including Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and Washington-based megachurch pastor Mark Batterson – helped pack theaters on opening weekend.
This kind of focused marketing gets out the word to committed church-goers. Yet there remains a mass-market hunger for stories of faith, of inspirational characters, and of redemption and grace. One film that spoke to this audience won the Oscar last year for Best Director: “The Life of Pi,” a fantastic ocean journey of a man who transcends classical divisions of religion to worship as a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian.
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Even a purely “secular” storyline can inspire greatness through sacrifice. That was demonstrated by “Gravity,” a science fiction movie about heroism, self-sacrifice and redemption that won the most awards this year – seven – at last week’s Oscars.
Faith may be hidden in Hollywood. But for those actors, directors and producers who dare to look upward and speak to the public through art that is good and refining, they will find an audience of large numbers ready to receive it.