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Jaimie Trueblood, Newline.wireimage.com
The film "The Nativity Story" chronicles the arduous journey of two people, Mary and Joseph, a miraculous pregnancy and the history-defining birth of Jesus.

When a film about the story of Jesus' birth premieres at the Vatican Sunday, some 7,000 invited guests and religious leaders will see the latest "Bible story" brought to life by a major motion picture studio — one that scores of local religious leaders were recently asked to suggest to their congregations this holiday season.

"The Nativity Story," produced by Time Warner's New Line Cinema, retells the story of "one family, one journey and one child who would change the world forever." The film was screened locally at The Gateway last week for local evangelical pastors and other religious leaders, including representatives from the LDS Church's public affairs department. The host was Pastor Greg Johnson, who has worked for the past several years to get evangelicals and Latter-day Saints talking to each other.

The screening was typical of a new type of marketing venue that Hollywood is pursuing after Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was successfully publicized through grass roots "word of mouth" by Christian leaders across the country.

Gibson's production had no major studio backing but ended up grossing more than $600 million worldwide.

Disney took notice, and much of the same marketing approach was used last Christmas with "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which — like "The Passion," featured a Web site with resources that churches could access to use the film as a teaching tool in their congregations. "Narnia" was written by Christian scholar C.S. Lewis, and the film was widely billed among Christians as an analogy of Christ in the form of a children's story.

That film was among the most popular of the holiday season, earning Disney more than $740 million worldwide.

As he did with those films, Johnson spoke to church leaders gathered for the local screening of "The Nativity Story," lauding producers for taking on a Christian subject and urging pastors who were favorably impressed to suggest it to their congregations as a way of telling Hollywood that's what audiences want.

"It's a great film that allows people of any background, but particularly Christians, to be reminded of what the Christmas holiday is all about. ... When we complain, as people of faith, about the quality of movies, that there's 'nothing for the family,' we now have an opportunity to get behind something like this," Johnson said.

Apparently Vatican officials felt much the same way. Sunday's premiere is being billed as the first ever for a feature film at the Vatican and will serve as a benefit, with contributions received to be used for construction of a school in the village of Mughar, Israel — located about 25 miles from Nazareth, where much of the film's story line takes place. Another recent religious film, "One Night with the King," grossed just $4 million on opening weekend in mid-October and has only been able to garner about $11 million during its five-week domestic run. Based on the biblical story of Esther, it has yet to play internationally but is set for video release in the United States in mid-January. Produced by the newly minted Foxfaith Films — a division of 20th Century Fox — the film's budget was an estimated $20 million, so it remains to be seen whether the film will make money or break even.

While major film studios have begun dipping their toes in the water with serious religious fare, independents have also taken note of audiences' willingness to fork out cash for what some see as "proselytizing."

LDS filmmaker Kieth Merrill, an Academy Award winner and two-time Oscar nominee, announced last week in Park City that he has formed Audience Alliance Motion Picture Studios, which seeks audience participation in what films will be produced via a monthly fee for joining. The studio will be a "membership organization that allows every moviegoer and member of the general audience to become directly involved in changing the way movies are made and in making an enormous difference in the world," according to a press release.

Rather than using religious congregations as the forum for promoting films, the venture will allow members "to help select the movies they want to see, the stories they want to hear and the values they embrace," through payment of a monthly fee, "around 10 bucks." Its first production is slated to be a movie adaptation of "Christmas Jars," a book many in the LDS community are familiar with, but which has no overtly denominational angle.

How successful major studios or independents will be at such ventures depends entirely on the quality of the story and the production itself, according to Brian Patrick, professor of film studies at the University of Utah. "A well-made film and well-made story and great cast can overcome a lot of question marks we have. I found myself seeing the Mel Gibson film and was really quite taken by it," he said.

"Perhaps other producers are seeing there is a market for something that has kind of a Bible-story approach, but with a very realistic look to it. Something that really pulls out all the stops to give you a gut-wrenching experience, showing the trials and tribulations of these characters in the Bible."

He sees quality religious filmmaking as a quest, "not so much for the money, but as a labor of love. You have to really want to tell these types of stories." Noting Gibson's personal passion for the story of Christ's crucifixion, "making a film like that is a bit like proselytizing."

Even so, Johnson is convinced that Christians — particularly the nation's 30-million-plus Evangelicals — have a window of opportunity to permanently alter the way Hollywood has done business for the past several decades by patronizing films like "The Nativity Story."

"We have a shot at recommending it as a warm and family-friendly film during a time when it seems you can't even say 'Merry Christmas' anymore. It reminds us of what the reason for the season is all about."

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com