For Religion or Money: Jesus on the Big Screen
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This Christmas, Christ is back. And this time, you can experience the story of his birth as never before. That's the message foretold in New Line Cinema's $36 million film, The Nativity Story , which opened Dec. 1 in more than 3,000 cinemas worldwide. Although the film is supposed to remind us about the humble beginnings of Jesus, the real message behind the most expensive religious movie ever backed by a major motion picture studio is that there are huge profits to be made by producing wholesome films with Christian themes.
Hollywood Buys Into Biblical Blockbusters
The Hollywood film industry has a long history of finding salvation in faith-based movies, which dates back to 1923, when Cecil DeMille produced the pious epic, The Ten Commandments , in part to help the Hollywood film industry redeem itself from charges of immorality.
But ever since Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ grossed more than $370 million in its first year, there has been renewed interest in producing movies that appeal to conservative Christians.
"Christians go to the moves just like everybody else," said Charlie Nelson of Grace Hill Media in Valley Village, Calif., a public relations and marketing firm hired by New Line Cinema to market The Nativity Story to faith communities. "It's just that now movie companies are making extra effort to tap into that segment."
And these movie companies are working hard to do just that. They are buying advertisements on Christian Web sites and television stations, sending posters and cardboard stand-ups to churches, holding advanced screenings for pastors, and tying their movies to other merchandise.
A coffee table book presents exclusive photos taken on the set of The Nativity Story together with scripture from the New Living Translation. A novel based on the movie tells the story of Mary based on the screenplay. A film study guide provides avenues for contemplating Mary's journey of faith.
And, of course, there's also The Nativity Story: Original Motion Picture Score available on CD, The Nativity Story: Sacred Songs , a compilation of Christmas carols performed by popular artists, and a greeting card that will be available in Christian bookstores -- everything a Christian needs to celebrate the season. And perhaps most impressively, the film premiered at the Vatican and got several high ranking cardinals to give it two thumbs up.
"What's distinctive about this film is that it's the first feature film to premiere at the Vatican," said Paul Allen Williams, editor of The Journal of Religion and Film at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "What New Line is trying to do is capture this segment of generally conservative Catholics and evangelicals. This is a very Catholic and theologically orthodox nativity story. This movie speaks volumes to those Christians."
And like The Da Vinci Code and The Passion of the Christ , churches are also using the movie to spark discussions about their faith, including at Harbor Light Church, a Pentecostal church in Fremont, Calif., where Pastor Terry Inman urges congregants to see the movie and then "come hear the messages" in his sermons on the Nativity.
Box Office B.S.?
But are religious-themed movies actually finding more favor with Christian audiences or is that just box office baloney from the religious right?
Despite an aggressive marketing campaign, The Nativity Story produced so-so returns at the box office opening weekend, an important gauge of a film's success. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), The Nativity Story took in a humble $7.8 million opening weekend, a disappointing gross for any movie opening on more than 3,000 screens. Compared with The Passion of the Christ , which brought in $84 million opening weekend and has grossed more than $611 million worldwide, there is little reason to believe that The Nativity Story is in the same league.
David Bruce, an ordained minister and webmaster for HollywoodJesus.com, believes the rhetoric about the potential spending power of Christian audiences is exaggerated. He believes that the notion there is a lot of money to be made by producing wholesome entertainment with Christian themes is being generated by a vocal and organized minority that seek to promote a moralistic, Christian worldview with industry executives, commentators and the media.
"It's so bogus that you can make a lot of money at the box office by making moralistic movies," Bruce said. "That's a politically correct argument and it's what those in the religious right want us to believe. People like to see their sensibilities reflected in Hollywood, but I don't believe it."
Bruce attributes the success of The Passion of the Christ to several factors including the controversy surrounding the movie, the star power of Mel Gibson's name, and the intrigue among Christians that someone had produced an R-rated film about Jesus.
"The lesson from The Nativity Story is that if the Christian audience is the only niche you're tapping into, you're not going to score a big hit at the box office," Bruce said. "Disney did not market The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings only to one niche market. They also marketed to people at fantasy fests and to people at literary clubs. The Christian audience is one niche market. But they're only one."
With ticket sales lagging, New Line Cinema is seeking out new avenues to promote its product as Christmas nears. The movie company is flooding the airwaves with testimonials from Christians standing in movie theater lobbies saying that seeing The Nativity Story is a great way to celebrate this Christmas season. And Bruce said he's recently been approached by the movie's marketing firm to hold a contest tied to the film and to conduct an interview with screenwriters.
"They're hoping that this movie has legs and that they can increase attendance as we get closer to Christmas," Bruce said. "I think that most of those who are interested in seeing the movie have seen it already, but we'll see.''
Kevin Hom, associate pastor of Fremont Community Church who has used clips from The Matrix, Jerry Maguire, Star Wars and Monty Python's Holy Grail during worship services, said there's been little excitement surrounding The Nativity Story .
"There was nothing like the huge push that came with the release of The Passion of the Christ ," Hom said.
Raising the Stakes
God only knows whether the potential spending power of conservative Christians will produce big profits for the film industry in the long run. What is clear is that some in Hollywood are buying in.
More than 90,000 Christian congregations are already part of a network that receives information about movies that often go straight to video from FoxFaith, a new brand created by Twentieth Century Fox to label and market movies to Christian audiences. And then there are companies like Good News Holdings, a multimedia group chaired by evangelical Christian pollster George Barna, which has announced plans for two films in 2007, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt , based on the novel by Anne Rice, and Dudleytown, a Christian horror film aimed at teenage audiences.
Nancy Lovell of the Dallas-based Lovell-Fairchild Communications, which promoted Facing the Giants , a Christian high school football movie made with an all-volunteer cast, notes that the movie, which cost a mere $80,000 to produce, has already generated more than $9.7 million primarily by tapping into the evangelical Christian market.
"I think people are hungry for faith and family friendly films," Lovell said. "They want movies without swearing. They want movies they can take their kids to and not wince at. The Christian audience is a discerning audience that responds to Godliness."
Thomas Deason, executive director of ActOne, a Hollywood firm that trains screenwriters and executives on how to express their Christian values, agrees.
"This is a huge demographic," Deason said. "There's a misconception out there that Hollywood wants to destroy the Christian worldviews. The only agenda in Hollywood is to make a profit."
But a recent study indicated that those with strict religious beliefs enjoy violent and sexually explicit movies as much as any other person. In 2005, a study of 1,000 Americans sponsored by MarketCast and Variety found that those who were the most conservative in their religious beliefs were actually more likely to see films rated R for violence than those who consider themselves more liberal in their religious beliefs.
Maybe spending millions producing a PG rated story about the birth of Christ wasn't such a brilliant idea after all. So far, at least, the profits generated are far from divine.
Jonathan Jones is a former religion reporter for MediaNews Group and is the son of a Presbyterian minister.