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.
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.
Studio vice chairman Rob Moore, an evangelical Christian, told The Hollywood Reporter the film isn't an exact portrayal of what the Bible records. "This movie has a lot more creativity to it," he said. "And therefore, if you want to put it on the spectrum, it probably is more accurate to say this movie is inspired by the story of Noah."
By contrast, 20th Century Fox's "Exodus," of which little has also been publicly disclosed, appears to be more faithful to its biblical narrative, found in its eponymous Old Testament book.
Expected to be released on Dec. 12, the film is Ridley Scott's retelling of the children of Israel's liberation from Egyptian slavery, in which Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver, a Scott favorite, respectively portray Moses and Queen Tuya, Pharaoh Seti's wife.
Last December, movie trade magazine and fan websites showed a photo of Bale as Moses, with Britain's Empire magazine describing the onetime prince of Egypt as "riding a very shiny horse and dressed in duds that would not disgrace Gandalf the White."
Ted Baehr, founder and publisher of Christian-themed review service Movieguide, explained why Hollywood has turned to the Bible in remarks he gave at the company's annual awards presentation earlier this month.
He said people want great movies, and "great movies are great stories well told, with a positive worldview, and that are spiritually uplifting.” Not only does Baehr's organization applaud movies with biblical themes, it also endorses faith messages in more secular fare.
"In 2013, Superman had to go to church in 'Man of Steel,’ ” he added. "People want Superman to win after he goes to church." Baehr said 87 percent of Americans say they believe in God, and more than 123 million go to church every week, but only 26 million go to the movies every week on average.
Tom Snyder, Movieguide's editor, noted in a telephone interview, "We’ve found that if Hollywood is open to putting more Christian references in top movies, it doesn’t hurt the box office and may even help the box office."
Along with the three Bible-related films, Hollywood is also, apparently, responding to Baehr's call for more faith themes.
At the end of March, moviegoers can see the independently produced "God Is Not Dead," in which a faithful college student defends his belief against an atheistic professor. April will see the release of Sony Pictures' "Heaven Is for Real," chronicling a 7-year-old's recollection of being in heaven.
Cable network WGN America is commissioning a "Ten Commandments" miniseries directed by 10 different Hollywood directors including Gus Van Sant, Wes Craven and Lee Daniels, while David Mamet is teaming with 20th Century Fox Television to do a limited series on the "7 Deadly Sins."
Making a film is one matter, but selling it is a different and more daunting task. Just ask A-list actor George Clooney, who had a producer's credit on the recent "Monuments Men," which was expected to win its opening weekend, only to finish behind the unexpectedly successful "The Lego Movie."
Burnett, an entertainment industry veteran whose reality series "Survivor," "The Apprentice" and "The Voice" each are heavily marketed, has pulled out all the stops to make this new project a success.
For "Son of God," advance work to boost the opening box office is a key strategic element. Downey and Burnett urged the Washington, D.C., preview audience — which included local megachurch pastor Mark Batterson — to encourage people to pack theaters when the film opens.
"The only chance a faith-based movie gets is in the opening weekend," Burnett said.
Since that Washington screening, numerous church pastors, including Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., where 20,000 people worship weekly, have been reported as buying out theaters so members and friends can attend the movie. Such mass purchases by church leaders in other cities were encouraged by Burnett and Downey to help build enthusiasm for the film, which has also been supported by substantial television advertising runs on cable networks, including Fox News Channel.
Burnett also emphasized endorsements for the film from two Roman Catholic leaders: Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, as well as influential Jewish leader Abraham H. Foxman, who heads the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
And the film's friends have taken to social media to push the movie: The Facebook page for Joel Osteen Ministries posted a message about "Son of God" to its 5.4 million online followers.
Fuller Seminary's Davidson said a net effect of these Bible-related films may be to help people start conversations about matters of faith with family or co-workers who are not believers.
Such movies "kind of open up conversations about these biblical stories," Davidson said. "Any time people are talking about the Bible and that kind of stuff, that’s a good thing."
He said viewers should "approach the movie as a conversation partner” and ask, " 'What does this movie care about?' Almost treat the movie as a person, and ask what questions it has about the Bible, the world, God, (and) let the movie ask the questions and respond, inwardly as a viewer, and then respond to the people in the theater about the questions the movie raises."
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company