Biblical films’ Hollywood comeback
Superheroes are being elbowed out by Noah and Mary as Hollywood makes 2014 year of the biblical epic
By Nick Allen, Los Angeles
3:41PM GMT 25 Dec 2013
So goes the promotional campaign for the forthcoming Hollywood blockbuster Mary Mother of Christ. “It is a part of Mary, Joseph and Jesus’s life that has not been shown on the big screen before,” reads a synopsis. “Under the reign of terror of Herod the Great and, against all odds, they survive as young parents in one of the most treacherous times in history.” It promises “faith-based high action drama” − and there is no room in the audience for doubting Thomases.
Mary Mother of Christ, whose title character will be played by Odeya Rush, a 16-year-old Israeli-born actress, is one of a series of unashamedly Christian biblical epics due to appear next year, marking an unprecedented overture by Hollywood to America’s evangelical heartland.
Studio executives who have spent the past few years releasing superhero and zombie films have, it seems, had an epiphany. Now their new best friends are evangelical pastors whose endorsements they actively seek, even inviting them on to sets during production. Pastors in turn play clips from films of which they approve to 10,000-strong congregations on 40ft wide movie screens.
Larry Ross, who has handled publicity for Christian groups and leaders including Rick Warren and Billy Graham, said “no pastor goes to seminary in order to market movies” but if the movie “proves edifying to their congregation, if it builds their faith”, they would recommend it.
In March audiences will be treated to Noah, a $150million special effects-laden extravaganza, in which Russell Crowe will build an ark and rescue mankind from the Great Flood. Harry Potter actress Emma Watson will play his adopted daughter, and Sir Anthony Hopkins is portraying Methuselah. The ark was built on Long Island, New York.
Noah will be followed by Sir Ridley Scott’s Exodus, in which Christian Bale, as Moses, will part the Red Sea. Scenes from ancient Egypt have been reconstructed in southern Spain, with Bale wielding a bow and arrow and Sigourney Weaver playing the Pharaoh’s wife. Scott has described the film, in a less than godly phrase, as “F—— huge”.
Another movie of Moses’s life called Gods and Kings is also planned. Steven Spielberg was due to make it but has been replaced by Ang Lee, who won the Best Director Oscar this year for Life of Pi. Meanwhile, Son of God will tell the story of Jesus’s life, with Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado in the lead role. Will Smith is said to be planning a film based on the story of Cain and Abel, and Brad Pitt is rumoured to be playing Pontius Pilate in a separate project. There will also be Resurrection, in which a Roman soldier is sent to investigate Christ’s death. It has been likened to “Gladiator, with a mystery bent”.
Phil Cooke, a film-maker and media consultant to Christian organisations, said Hollywood’s epiphany had financial, not spiritual, origins. “What’s happened is they’ve understood it’s very good business to take Christians seriously, and this is a real serious market,” he said.
“For years Hollywood bent over backwards to reach special interest groups, be it feminists or environmentalists. It has finally realised that there are 91 million evangelical Christians in America.”
For their part, studio executives have taken something of a leap of faith that films in which religious figures save the world will bring big box office receipts.
That faith is based in no small part on the success of The Bible, a television mini-series shown on the History channel earlier this year, which averaged 11.4 million viewers and became America’s most watched cable show of 2013.
“It made the Bible cool to talk about again,” said Mr Cooke. “The separation of church and state in America is so strong that people had become afraid to talk about God, at work or at school. Suddenly, these Bible stories were water cooler conversation again.”
Since the days of epics such as Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments more than half a century ago, Hollywood and America’s Christian areas have rarely seen eye to eye. A low point was Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, which featured sex scenes, and flopped after Roman Catholics led a boycott.
But in 2004 Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ achieved great commercial success, thanks partly to the endorsement of prominent Christians such as Rev Billy Graham. Since then, studios including Warner Bros, Sony and Fox have nurtured faith-based audiences. They have created “faith” divisions and employed Bible scholars to check scripts. “Mega-church” pastors have been invited to preview films months before their release.
Websites have also been created for pastors to download trailers to show during sermons. The push includes promoting films with Christian groups globally, particularly in South America and Africa.
However, that audience is knowledgeable about the subject matter and Hollywood is wrestling with questions of dramatic licence. One of next year’s epics has already run into controversy. Test screenings for Noah with a Christian audience in Arizona, and a Jewish audience in New York, reportedly produced troubling results. It has been suggested that the film shows Noah as an early opponent of climate change. Its director, Darren Aronofsky, has called him the “first environmentalist”.
Brian Godawa, a screenwriter, claimed to have read an early version of the script and said it portrayed a scenario in which the Great Flood was caused by man’s “disrespect” for the environment. Paramount, the studio behind Noah, remains adamant that it will sail on to success.
Whatever happens, Noah will have the same advantage for studios as the other biblical epics. Unlike movies based on superheroes, or the latest literary sensation such as Fifty Shades of Grey, the studios will not have to pay millions of dollars in copyright and licensing fees. The stories in the Bible are free to use.