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Will Hollywood get religion?

By Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 12, 2001


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.

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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."