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Hollywood wants you!

Filmmakers peddle wares to Christian audience

By Christina Quick

Before 2004, few could have predicted a film depicting Jesus’ crucifixion would become a blockbuster hit.

Yet The Passion of the Christ attracted people to theaters in droves — many of them Christians who hadn’t bought movie tickets in years. Pastors used pulpit time to encourage parishioners to attend, and many churches bought out entire showings for their congregations en route to making the movie a $370 million sensation.

During the past three years, Hollywood studios have been scrambling to replicate the phenomenon by courting the Christian audience. With more than 40 percent of the adult population attending church each week, it’s a potentially immense market. But will a steady stream of celluloid gospel sell, or was Mel Gibson’s success a cinematic anomaly?

Recent ventures, such as last year’s launch of the Fox Faith distribution label by Twentieth Century Fox, are banking on the Christian community rallying behind films that promote their beliefs.

“We’re in the business of entertainment, not proselytizing,” says Jeff Yurdy, vice president of marketing for Fox Faith. “We simply recognized that there was a hugely underserved audience and seized the opportunity to provide them with high-quality entertainment that reflects their values.”

Other big players have made overtures to cater to the church market as well. Last December, New Line Cinema, the makers of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, released The Nativity Story, a movie based on the biblical account of Christ’s birth. To highlight the film’s religious ties, the world premiere occurred at the Vatican. The movie nonetheless grossed a disappointing $37 million, one-tenth of Passion’s earnings.

Fox Faith fared far worse at the box office this year with Thr3e, which grossed about $1 million, and The Last Sin Eater, garnering under $400,000.

Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission and publisher of the family entertainment review Movieguide, says poor marketing is one of the problems plaguing these films.

“Marketing to the church takes a little more effort than sending out an e-mail,” Baehr says. He says Motive Marketing President Paul Lauer spent almost a year working on The Passion of the Christ. Nativity had a buildup of about a month and a half, Baehr says.

Baehr also notes movies such as the ones Fox Faith is creating are intended primarily for a niche video market. Operating on shoestring budgets, directors often are limited in what they can achieve artistically.

Therein lies the quandary for Christians who wonder whether they should take what they can get, satisfied that someone is finally making movies that mirror their values, or lobby for both excellence and morality in films that will appeal to a broader range of moviegoers.

For years, church leaders have been complaining about violence and sexuality in movies. But Baehr says Christians aren’t necessarily seeking overtly religious content in every movie they watch. Hollywood’s attempts to portray biblical truths are often perceived by the devout as inaccurate, shallow or irreverent.

That was the fatal error of Evan Almighty, a movie heavily marketed to Christians. The PG-rated film, a comedy about a modern-day Noah and the ark that bore no resemblance to the actual Bible story, was a colossal flop.

With a budget of $175 million, it is the most expensive comedy in movie history. Yet its domestic box office hovered around $100 million.

Mark Joseph, author of Faith, God and Rock ’n’ Roll, says the failed venture represents the vast disconnect that persists between Hollywood and the church.

“If Hollywood continues to create films like Evan Almighty, millions of traditionalists may grow to rue the day when Hollywood, with dollar signs in its eyes, began courting them with wilted flowers and stale chocolate,” Joseph said in a Fox News article.

Evan Almighty never really clicked with Christian audiences. Many critics, both mainstream and Christian, panned the movie, distributed in June. The first film in the series, the PG-13-rated Bruce Almighty, with no Christian marketing, brought in $243 million in 2003.

Baehr says many Christians would be relieved just to see more quality films that aren’t filled with obscenities and immorality.

“The church audience is the American audience,” Baehr says. “The average American is looking for movies that are entertaining and worthwhile.”

Movieguide, which tracks and reports on annual box office sales, has consistently shown that family-friendly movies are more profitable than raunchy, violent ones.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is widely regarded as a prime example of a movie that appealed to Christians as well as families outside the faith community. The retelling of C.S. Lewis’ classic story raked in almost $292 million after its 2005 release. A second installment in the Narnia series, Prince Caspian, will be released in May 2008, followed by a third, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in May 2009.

Also coming to theaters in January is The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, a VeggieTales movie by Big Idea and Universal Studios.

“Every year there are more and more films with Christian content,” Baehr says. “The church is a gigantic market, and Hollywood is definitely interested.”

Elliott Wallach, president of Edify Media, a marketing group for Fox Faith, says filmmakers can’t afford to ignore Christians.

“So many of today’s movies have such a higher frequency of sexual content and violence that those people who find that offensive are left having to really search for entertainment that is sensitive to their value system,” Wallach says. “The trend we’re seeing is that many now recognize the growth opportunity in this market. I think you’ll see a lot more movies being created with the Christian market in mind as the core consumer.”

Of course, that will depend largely on how Christians respond.

“The most powerful person in Hollywood is the person who goes to the movies,” Baehr says. “If they choose the good, there will be more good. If they choose the bad, there will be more bad.”

CHRISTINA QUICK is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

4875 - 10/14/07

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