Hollywood's next big thing: religion

Hollywood is turning to the Bible for an array of new films and television shows. The success of 'The Bible' miniseries and 'The Passion of the Christ' suggest that religion could bring big bucks.

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    This publicity image shows Diogo Morcaldo as Jesus (r.) in a scene from 'The Bible.' The History Channel mini-series has spawned a rush toward religious material in Hollywood.
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As summer winds down, the hottest trend on Hollywood’s fall schedule appears to be religion. Faith-based entertainment is in the midst of a comeback, what with NBC announcing its sequel to “The Bible,” the highly rated cable mini-series; multiple upcoming movies about Moses; a new film about Noah (starring Russell Crowe); and a Ridley Scott production of Exodus.

And then there are the renewals of such ratings-busting shows as GSN’s “The American Bible Challenge,” back for a third season, and TLC’s announcement that not only will its franchise, “Breaking Amish: LA,” return, but there will be a reunion event as well. Add to that list ongoing reality shows such as “Preacher’s Daughters” and the list just keeps growing.

“We are certainly in the midst of a rush of interest in faith-based shows,” says Martha Williamson, creator and producer of the CBS hit “Touched By An Angel,” which ran from 1994 to 2003.

The deluge of religious programming suggests that a decade after Mel Gibson parlayed the self-financed "Passion of the Christ" into a half-billion dollar box office blockbuster, Hollywood is finally figuring out how to turn the Bible into big bucks. The revival, after all, is no spiritual awakening. Some 78 percent of Americans say they are Christian, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center's Project on Religion and Public Life, and the Bible provides the sort of epic storytelling that Hollywood is thirsting for, making a religious comeback, if anything, overdue.

The Bible was big in early Hollywood (think Cecil B. DeMille, “King of Kings,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben-Hur,” and more). But its return, some say, merely underscores that Hollywood – amid its countless remakes and sequels – continues to have difficulty coming up with compelling new stories.

The biggest factor driving the new interest in Biblical movies is the “overall loss of storytelling craft that is afflicting our culture and particularly Hollywood,” says Barbara Nicolosi Harrington, executive director of the Galileo Studio at Azusa Pacific University and writer of the original screenplay for the projected 2014 Lionsgate film, “Mary, Mother of Christ.”

“Hollywood is more and more unable to create original stories,” she says. The industry is reaching for Biblical stories because they have name recognition, high stakes, a built-in "fan base, " and an epic quality that seems ideal for today's CGI technology, she notes.  

After the success of Mr. Gibson's "Passion" in 2004, studios rushed to open faith-based divisions, such as FoxFaith Studio. But one of the first followup efforts – New Line’s “The Nativity Story” in 2006 – fizzled both critically and financially. It was a reminder that audiences “can spot a con a mile away,” says Phil Cooke, who owns Cooke Pictures, has a doctorate in theology, and recently consulted on the set of “Noah.”

But the phenomenal success of the History Channel's “The Bible,” produced by husband and wife team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, has confirmed for many that, done right, religion as entertainment can be both hot and profitable, says Angie Schuller, granddaughter of the Crystal Cathedral founder, Robert Schuller.

Much to their surprise, CBS executives learned the same lesson in 1994. “They thought ['Touched by an Angel'] might air for maybe six episodes, until they could get the next Don Johnson action show on the air,” says Ms. Williamson, who returns this fall with her first new show in more than a decade, which will be on the Hallmark Channel.

While faith and mass entertainment are not mutually exclusive, they coexist in a delicate balance that risks cheapening religion in order to give it mass appeal, says Bryan Stone, academic dean at Boston School of Theology. “Consumer culture may render a religious tradition more accessible, but our relationship to that tradition remains one of ‘shoppers’ and ‘consumers’ who engage that tradition as a disposable commodity,” he says.

Of equal concern, says Professor Stone, is the fact that Hollywood is attracted to the bizarre and unusual in religion. One of the fast developing trends is the exploitation of faith as reality television.

“Snake Salvation” is due to appear next month on the National Geographic Channel, featuring a pair of snake-handling Pentecostal preachers. Expect it to draw a sizeable audience, Stone says, “and we can likely expect similar programming on the way.”

Indeed, more is not necessarily better, says Tom Forman, CEO of Relativity Television, who spoke at a June faith-based entertainment conference sponsored by the Hollywood trade magazine Variety. “The good news is there is going to be a lot more of it,” he told the audience. “The bad news is that a lot of it is going to be awful.”

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