Hollywood takes a leap into faith

Chasing the success of 'The Passion of the Christ,' the film industry is bringing the Bible back to the big screen.

Cecil B. DeMille would be proud. After all, this is the legendary showman who once said, "Give me any two pages of the Bible and I'll give you a picture." This week, 20th Century Fox launched a new "faith-based division," called FoxFaith. It's first film, "One Night with the King," is pure DeMille: Love! Adventure! Palace intrigue! And, by the way, also Holy Writ. The film, opening Friday, is based on a novel about Queen Esther, who saves the Jews of Persia and marries King Xerxes.

This may be just another step in Hollywood's new dance with the "faith-based" community, but given that Fox executives estimate that audience at more than 80 million, the rest of Tinseltown is paying close attention.

Fox's new division, housed under the home entertainment department, is targeting both theatrical and DVD releases at the Christian audience. But it is not a production house, says senior vice president Steve Feldstein and, taking a page from the DeMille bible, neither is FoxFaith in business to teach theology. "We are not here to proselytize, we are making entertainment."

Religion certainly isn't new in Hollywood. Neither is a concern about making missteps. Film mogul Samuel Goldwyn once famously said: "If you have a message, send a telegram." And producer DeMille ultimately forsook the Holy Book, saying Hollywood studios were afraid of offending any portion of their audiences.

But with the relatively recent rise of the "niche market," made possible by the proliferation of new outlets and marketing venues – from cable to satellite to the Internet – films with a targeted message and audience have become all the rage. The runaway success of Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" was Hollywood's wake-up call in 2004 about the power of this genre, when it raked in some $600 million at the box office worldwide. While Fox turned down the opportunity to distribute the film in theaters, its home entertainment division handled the DVD sales of more than 15 million copies.

All this has demonstrated to the entertainment industry that there is a large, underserved number of potential films with an unabashedly religious point of view.

"This is not just a fad," says Matthew Crouch, producer of "One Night with the King." "This is a long-term trend that is here to stay."

Fox may be the only studio with a major, in-house faith-based brand, but others are trying to tap the same market. Walt Disney reached out to churches by offering special screenings in its recent release of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the first in a series of "Narnia" films from Christian writer C.S. Lewis.

New Line Cinema plans to release "The Nativity Story," starring Keisha Castle-Hughes as the Virgin Mary, this December. Sony Pictures recently partnered with Peter Lalonde, the Christian filmmaker behind the "Left Behind" films, to bring out the third installment, "Left Behind III: the World at War." Warner Brothers has a multipicture deal with Legendary Pictures, which hopes to bring John Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost" to the screen.

On the face of it, a company known for racy material, including "Nip/Tuck" on FX and TV shows "The Simple Life" and "Temptation Island," might seem an unlikely partner to create religion-friendly stories. But Fox began establishing its credentials to this marketplace back in 2002, when it started releasing direct-to-video films for the Christian Bookseller's Association. This led to the creation of Foxfaith.com this past year and, ultimately, the division this past week.

Films will have modest budgets at around $5 million. Initially, FoxFaith will only market six films a year theatrically. The division has accumulated a list of some 90,000 ministries and congregations who have signed up to receive information about the company's films. According to Fox, the division has already become a $200-million business.

As with any new dance partners, there is always the potential for stepping on toes. "One Night" screenwriter Stephen Blinn is cautiously optimistic. "I think there is a maturing on both sides, which will lead to a broadening or a willingness to discuss and think about new ideas."

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