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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...




It's a Wrap

The year of the Bible movie


By John W. Kennedy
Dec. 14, 2014

The Bible-themed epic Exodus: Gods and Kings opened at theaters around the nation on Friday, and its eventual success or failure in attracting moviegoers may determine whether major studios are willing to risk bankrolling Scripture-inspired films in the near future.

“Filmmakers are searching right now for a winning formula to bring the American public back to movie theaters,” says Cameron A. Pace, 54, professor of film and television at Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., noting box office receipts this summer were the lowest since 2006. “We’ll see if this Bible film does something to move the needle. If not, we may not see any more for awhile.”

Exodus is a $150 million 20th Century Fox venture directed by Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale as Moses.

It arrives nine months after another biblical blockbuster, Noah, with Russell Crowe in the title role. That Paramount feature cost $125 million to make.

Pace says Exodus might fail to gain traction in some evangelical circles, just as happened with Noah.

Noah didn’t do as well as expected, partly because of failing to gain full acceptance in the Christian community as a result of deviations from Scripture or embellishment,” Pace says.

But Jonathan Bock, founder of Grace Hill Media in Valley Village, Calif., says whoever is behind the camera lens must take liberties because the Bible isn’t a movie script.

“No one knows from the biblical account the emotional state of anyone on the ark until the end, when Noah gets drunk and passes out,” says Bock, 43. “Nobody knows whether the survivors were scared, lonely, depressed, overjoyed or grateful to God.”

Bock says some Christians who found Noah too dark and violent seemed to have forgotten the Genesis narrative explaining the world had grown so evil that God felt compelled to wipe out humanity. 

“Everybody won’t be satisfied with a movie as bold and broad as Noah,” Bock says.

Exodus may face an additional hurdle by being released in a crowded lineup during December, when studios save their Oscar-winning hopefuls.

In any event, 2014 has been the year of the Bible movie. Three of the seven highest-grossing movies ever produced by Christians debuted this year: Heaven Is for Real ($91.4 million); God’s Not Dead ($60.8 million); and Son of God ($59.7 million).

These films not only attracted viewers but also have been highly profitable. God’s Not Dead, shot for a paltry $2 million, tells how a college freshman responds to a philosophy professor’s demands that he declare God doesn’t exist. Son of God incorporates footage from last year’s highly rated The Bible miniseries on the History Channel. Heaven Is for Real is derived from Todd Burpo’s 2010 best-seller about his 4-year-old son’s reported encounter with Jesus during a near-death surgery.

SECULAR VS. FAITH-BASED

While those motion pictures had evangelistic intentions, irreligious big-name filmmakers are now looking to the Good Book for resource material. Although production values and acting are first-rate, authenticity isn’t always a high priority for veterans in the industry. 

“Hollywood executives, directors, producers and writers see Bible stories as a way they can be inventive,” Pace says. While moguls aren’t afraid of offending Christians with content, they do want to ensure that the faith-based audience fill seats, Pace adds.

Thus, big-budget pictures such as Exodus aren’t aimed specifically at churchgoers, yet Hollywood executives know Christians must attend in droves if the movie is to be a hit.

“This is the year of the Bible movie because we’re starting to see the culmination of more than a decade of Hollywood learning that the faith audience is a community that is vast, likes entertainment, and shows up,” Bock says.

Major studio Bible films these days emphasize depictions of human conflict and suffering. God often is almost an afterthought.

Yet such an approach is why imaginative non-Christians sometimes devise a better movie than Christians relying exclusively on God’s Word, according to Alissa Wilkinson, 31, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based chief film critic for Christianity Today Movies.

“A good filmmaker will take a familiar story and find a new angle,” Wilkinson says, noting the fresh take 2004’s The Passion of the Christ had on the Crucifixion. “Christians sometimes get frustrated when their perception of familiar things is challenged.”

Pace doesn’t believe it’s essential for a feature film to quote Scripture verbatim to make an impact.

“Talking about a film is an easy way to connect with people,” Pace says. “Even if it’s not biblically accurate with particular passages, it provides a starting point for discussion. It gives an opportunity to talk about the importance of what Scripture actually says.”

Wilkinson, who says she enjoyed Noah, agrees that Christians should engage with non-Christians on the theology depicted in such movies.

Historically, movies produced by Christians have struggled to compete with mainstream counterparts. While inexpensive digital video equipment has improved the appearance of images on the screen, limited budgets still hamper various Christian efforts to garner top-notch actors.

Another habitual problem with Christian movies is sermonizing throughout. Myriad plots have relied on the premise of a once-troubled pagan who turns to Jesus and lives happily ever after.

“I’m not convinced Christians who make movies take enough time thinking about it,” Wilkinson says. “It takes multiple drafts to refine a script into a good screenplay.”

Wilkinson says Christian movies frequently fail to reach beyond churchgoing audiences because they rarely explore the difficulties Christians face after the salvation experience.

“Many Christians only want to see their values reflected on the screen,” Wilkinson says.

“Sometimes we as Christians get caught up in the message of what a movie should say as opposed to letting a movie speak for itself,” Bock says. “We tend to like movies to portray the world as it should be, as opposed to the way it is.”

While overtly Christian flicks may pack cinemas in the Midwest and South, movies immersed in traditional American cultural values don’t translate well in foreign markets. This year’s top three explicitly Christian moneymakers — Heaven Is for Real, God’s Not Dead, and Son of God — brought in combined foreign box office receipts under $20 million. Noah, by contrast, earned a whopping $258 million outside the U.S. in addition to grossing $101 million domestically.

“A $5 million Christian movie that is largely preaching to the choir can have all its success come from domestic box office and still make a good return,” Bock says.

However, major studios are increasingly eyeing potential international receipts before sanctioning production, Bock says.

“Studios must consider how well a movie will play across the globe,” Bock says. “It needs to be a hit not just domestically but in Australia, Japan, Brazil, India and China.”

Bock believes Christian movies are improving, but not fast enough.

“The bar of Christian filmmaking has been low because of a lack of competition,” Bock says. “But now that major studios are spending money and expertise on the genre, and talented filmmakers are involved, the audience is going to expect a higher level of production quality. It’s an opportunity and a threat; we as Christians are going to have to get better.”

Of course how well a movie performs may depend not on artistic quality but on skillful promotion. Some studios spend as much money marketing a movie as it took to make the film itself.

When a faith-based film is involved, that marketing includes targeting the pastor — the trusted voice who will energize the congregation. Promotion might include making film clips available to be shown during a sermon and offering discounted blocks of tickets for when the movie premieres.

Bock’s company has been a liaison in promoting films such as Noah and Son of God to pastors, ministry professionals, and parachurch organizations. Grace Hill Media also advises Hollywood executives about how movie scripts deviate from Scripture.

In October, Left Behind tried to straddle both the Christian and mainstream markets, utilizing a Christian writer, hiring an Academy Award-winning actor (Nicholas Cage), and spending a sizable amount ($34 million) on production and marketing.

The movie showed scant box office appeal despite opening in 1,825 theaters (God’s Not Dead had a much more prosperous opening in 780 theaters in March). Critics, both in the Christian and mainstream media, ravaged Left Behind.

While Left Behind proved to be a best-selling book series by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, not all Christians believe in a pre-Tribulation Rapture — if they think about end times at all. And the same scriptwriter, Paul Lalonde, already produced a movie of the same name just 13 years ago — to a tepid response.

Several critics found Left Behind to be more of a run-of-the-mill disaster thriller than a unique apocalyptic experience.


ON THE HORIZON

Mary, a much-delayed prequel to The Passion of the Christ — the highest-grossing Christian film of all time with $370.8 million in ticket sales a decade ago — is now scheduled to hit screens around Easter, with Julia Ormond and Ben Kingsley in the cast.

And certainly many more big studio Bible-themed movies are in the development stages. Whether some of those actually go into production depends on whether Exodus is a hit.

The list includes a proposal about King David to be directed by Ridley Scott; a parable of Cain produced by Will Smith; a project centered on Pontius Pilate starring Brad Pitt; and a depiction of events surrounding Christ’s missing body after the Crucifixion starring Joseph Fiennes.

Wilkinson says there are movies in the hopper focusing on the Council of Nicaea, St. Augustine, and the friendship between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

“Christian history has amazing, interesting stories that haven’t been tapped in the movies,” Wilkinson says. “People are interested in stories beyond testimonies of conversion.”

Although a blockbuster performance by Exodus could green light a host of undertakings, Wilkinson thinks films with a Bible motif will continue regardless now that studios realize the enormity of the faith-based audience.

Bock believes Hollywood is in the nascent stages of churning out multiple Christian-themed movies.

“Ten years from now, we will look back on this as a seminal moment,” Bock says. “The peak is yet to come.”

When somewhat suspect Scripture-inspired films come out, Pace suggests Christians try to engage non-Christians.

“As a Christian, I want to be careful of automatically being too dismissive of Hollywood movies, and rather consider them an opportunity for discussion,” Pace says. “In general, I’m happy these movies are being made. The Bible has great material.”


JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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