Will Hollywood get religion?
LOS ANGELES — After the Sept. 11 attacks, a number of movies with violent finales were not released. So when the Apocalypse-themed film "Megiddo: Omega Code 2" opened as scheduled the following week, the decision not to delay it put the self-described Christian film in a national spotlight. Comments from "Megiddo" producer Matthew Crouch that God "positioned the film to be the answer for a question we didn't even know would be asked" brought the film extra attention, particularly from the media.
But this sequel to "The Omega Code," the highest-grossing independent film of 1999 ($12 million plus), was already on Hollywood's radar screen for another reason - money.
The Cain and Abel face-off between a Christian American president and his evil brother, who heads a worldwide organization united against the US, is the latest - and costliest at $22 million - appeal to what is being touted as a new, undertapped market for Christian-themed entertainment, or "Godsploitation."
While many suggest that more sober times may increase the appeal of all films with serious themes, Christian-themed music, film, and books (not including the Bible) already have begun to rack up the kinds of numbers - some $3 billion in 2000 - that make Hollywood executives sit up and take notice.
Christian filmmakers such as Mr. Crouch say the impact of their work is just beginning to appear. "My pitch to Hollywood is, 'Hello, there's an audience here that has rejected you,' " he says. "I will show you who they are, and that niche will grow into the largest market segment Hollywood has ever seen."
Religion and popular culture are hardly strangers. In Hollywood's early days, Cecil B. DeMille mined the Bible for some of his biggest hits, and the devil never seems to go out of fashion as a villain. The difference today may be found in the motivation of the so-called creative Christians. They have a strong desire to unite their faith with entertainment. But striking the balance between the two has been a challenge.
As the market for religion-driven entertainment expands beyond denominational boundaries into the mainstream, it's clear that, while many of these talents may have found their religious path, they are still finding their way when it comes to entertaining the masses.
"It's a fine line," says Peter Lalonde, producer of "Left Behind," last year's film based on the wildly successful series of books by the same title about the end of time. They provide a specific, but not universal, interpretation of the Christian themes of salvation and the second coming of Jesus.
"We're hammered for being too evangelical on one side, and then some in the Christian community say we aren't going far enough," says Mr. Lalonde, who released the film on video before taking it to theaters, using local churches and the Internet to spread the word.
Lalonde says his goal is to reach people through good storytelling. "Samuel Goldwyn used to say that if you have a message, send it by Western Union," says Lalonde, president of Cloud Ten Pictures. "Christian filmmaking in the past has been thinly disguised sermons with a message. We have always wanted to be seen as filmmakers who happen to be Christians. But we're always going to bring our point of view to our films."
This sense of mission is a common link between members of this growing community. "There are 100 million people in this country who identify themselves as Christians, and they feel that they've been left behind by the studio system. They feel movies aren't being made for them," Lalonde says.
Barbara Nicolosi came to Hollywood because she felt that the perspective of a life based on faith was either being slighted or misrepresented in popular entertainment - and not necessarily by outsiders.
"We weren't being martyred," says the founder of Act One, Writing for Hollywood, a coalition of Christian writers and producers. "We were doing it to ourselves with schlocky movies that gave a standard reply to problems."
Act One, now in its second year with a $300,000 budget from the Roman Catholic church, opened its doors in Los Angeles two years ago. A New York office launched this past month.
"We want art that will not be cynical," says Ms. Nicolosi, the Act One director who points to films such as "October Sky," as an example of good filmmaking. "The problem is when people don't have God in their framework, the only thing they are sure of is the darkness. They tend to obsess about anger and fear.
"But, when you add God, then hope is stronger, and you can add the darkness, but it will never be stronger" than hope.
Studios have expressed interest in the work of those she teaches, but even so, she says, it's not easy for anyone in Hollywood to know exactly what audiences will buy.
"We're trying day by day to figure out what our students need to equip them better," she says.
Meanwhile, Christian musicians have to counter the bad-boy image of rock. "For us, being Christians and being musicians, it's not as big a contradiction as people think," says Jeff Frankenstein, drummer for the Christian rock group the Newsboys. "The whole traditional image of being a bad boy is one thing. But what could be more rebellious than being a Christian and a musician?
"Look at the life of Jesus - that's way more outrageous."
The Newsboys headlined this past summer's 30-city, 10-group rock tour called "Festival Con Dios," what was dubbed the first-ever "Christian Lollapalooza," after the alternative rock festival.
While religion has inspired artists for centuries, it has been largely banished from today's popular entertainment, says Robert Thompson, director of the center for the study of popular television at Syracuse University. This, he says, parallels the rise of mass culture.
"For so long in the mainstream entertainment, there was this idea that you had to appeal to mass audience," Mr. Thompson says. "People were uncomfortable with religious themes. You could talk about anything but religion or politics if you were going after a mass audience because you didn't want to offend anyone."
The splintering of the mass market into many cable and satellite channels has opened the door to more targeted entertainment, he says.
"We haven't seen such raw forms of entertainment in a long time, he says. The reception for Christian music and films from mainstream critics has been largely neutral or negative. But that doesn't mean they aren't making an impact.
"These things are a meaningful barometer of the place and manifestation of religion in a kind of dialogue with the rest of culture," says David Sterritt, long-time film critic of the Monitor. "I'm not sure if anyone should care about these movies themselves. But they ought to care if those [large] numbers of people are going to see them."
Historically, says Michael York, who plays the devil in "Megiddo: Omega Code 2," Lucifer has always been the best role for an actor.
"The devil hogs all the bedclothes, so to speak," says Mr. York, who has played biblical roles before, notably John the Baptist in Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth." Despite their religious iconography, says the British actor, who calls himself "vaguely spiritual," "I'd hoped that these [Omega Code] films had an ambiguity about them, a double level, so they didn't seem to be entirely religious propaganda."
He says he understands that comments suggesting "Megiddo" was the work of God framed it as a sort of religious agitprop. But he says Western culture also cannot escape its own legacies.
"If you're brought up in a Judeo-Christian culture, it's impossible not to deal with these films," he says. "They're the source of your parables, all your metaphors."