Faith — film’s final frontier?
Paraphrasing the “Star Trek” line, that question is being asked by the movie industry and its watchers, given a recent increase in faith-based films.
• "Son of God,” which repackages footage from the popular History Channel series “The Bible” to create a big-screen portrayal of Jesus’ life.
• “God’s Not Dead,” which depicts a young man’s efforts in defending his belief in God against academic challenges.
• “Noah,” which features Russell Crowe and big-name co-stars as well as a massive $130 million budget.
• “Heaven Is For Real,” which is based on the New York Times best-seller about a small-town pastor and his 4-year-old son’s life-after-death experience.
Still to come later this year and into the next: a biopic on Mother Teresa (“The Letters”) as seen through her writings to her longtime friend and spiritual adviser; a Moses movie (“The Exodus”) starring Christian Bale; a star-studded cast in the long-awaited prequel to “The Passion of The Christ” (“Mary, Mother of Christ) and a Cain and Abel film set to star Will Smith.
With Hollywood’s 2014 being billed as “the year of the Bible” and “the year of faith films,” two questions remain — why now and will it last?
One “why” reason is obvious — faith-based films are bringing in sustained profits as well as an occasional prophet, as in Noah or Moses. The four aforementioned to-date releases all are among the top 30 in the latest domestic gross rankings of box-office revenues — “Noah” at No. 18 with $101.2 million in U.S. ticket sales alone, “Heaven Is For Real” at No. 21 with $91.1 million, “God’s Not Dead” at No. 27 with $60.7 million and “Son Of God” at No. 28 with $59.7 million.
And that makes for a good chunk of leftover change when your costs are $22 million to produce “Son of God” or a mere $2 million to make “God’s Not Dead.”
Another “why now” answer is that the market is asking for it. According to a survey of 1,054 Americans from Nashville-based LifeWay Research, more than half — 56 percent — said they wished for more movies with Christian values.
"Faith-based movies are no longer a niche," said Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research. "It's smart economics — if you make a film that appeals to that audience, they will show up."
DeVon Franklin, a senior vice president with Columbia TriStar Pictures, said as much in an interview with The Christian Post.
“If there’s a sense that there’s a growing market and a growing hunger for more films like this, then the desire to continue to provide more films will increase, and decisions will be made to be able to make more films like this,” said Franklin, whose TriStar Pictures distributed “Heaven Is For Real.”
The beauty of faith-based films — and elements of belief — are often in the eye of the beholder. Some moviegoers anticipate an explicit message of faith; others are satisfied with inspiring implications. Some are critical of interpretations, artistic license and detours; others are more accepting.
“I think anytime you make a film, it’s always open to criticism,” Franklin said. “There’s no film that is an exception to that. Some are going to feel that, depending on what the movie is, it’s not faithful enough, and some might feel that it’s too faithful.”
While Hollywood “has evidently discovered Christians as a consumer demographic,” biblical stories and themes have long inspired filmmakers, said Thonda Burnette-Bletsch, a religion professor at North Carolina’s Greensboro College.
“The Bible has still exerted tremendous influence on art, literature and film in Western culture,” Burnette-Bletsch told the Washington Times. “Its influence has been felt in innumerable Christ figures and Moses figures. What is ‘The Lion King’ if not the Exodus story?”
Chris Aronson, distribution vice president at 20th Century Fox, said credibility in making and distributing faith-based films will be critical. “You can’t pull the wool over the faith-based audience’s eyes because they will see it and reject it,” Aronson told deadline.com. “And I think [“Son of God” producers] Mark Burnett and Roma Downey had ultimate credibility because they went directly to the opinion-makers in the faith-based community and showed that they had the goods.”
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Whether to sustain the faith or to sustain the profits, this year is a make-or-break mark for religious-themed movies, says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, which measures television and movie-viewing statistics.
“This year, in a sense, is a test of the genre,” Dergarabedian told the Washington Times. “This year is going to decide, determine, the fate of the faith-based movies. I think it’s the last untapped genre to go mainstream.”
And so, if faith is in fact film’s final frontier, we ask that Hollywood continue to do the exploring, and to do so in good faith.