Easter 2016: Why religion-based projects are hot in Hollywood

Following the success of projects like the History Channel series 'The Bible,' faith-based movies and TV shows seemingly aren't going anywhere, with films released around Easter including the religious stories 'The Young Messiah' and 'Miracles from Heaven' and TV projects like 'The Passion' arriving.

Michael Becker/Fox/AP
'The Passion' stars Prince Royce, who portrays Peter.

Religion continues to provide inspiration for movies and TV shows, as several recent projects released in movie theaters and on TV demonstrate that faith-based storytelling continues to be popular in Hollywood. 

Faith and the stories involved with it were the basis for classic movies like 1956’s “The Ten Commandments,” and these projects seemingly aren’t going anywhere – this year's movie releases so far include “Risen,” about a Roman soldier (Joseph Fiennes) looking into the death of Jesus Christ; “The Young Messiah,” about Jesus as a child; and “Miracles from Heaven,” which tells the story of a child who is cured of illness and who later says she saw heaven.

This month also saw the debut of an ABC TV series, “Of Kings and Prophets,” which centered on Biblical characters including David, as well as Fox’s “The Passion,” a musical production about Jesus.

And this past summer’s “War Room,” about a couple who work on their marriage through prayer, became the newest faith-based movie to surpass expectations at the box office. 

This entertainment is being released in a country where the number of people who do not identify with any religion has increased over the past decade but many of those who are religious remain devout. Still others do not attend church but say they consider themselves "spiritual." 

In this climate, what keeps Hollywood returning to, for one, the stories of the Bible?

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, says it’s no surprise that sequences in the Bible like the parting of the Red Sea inspire directors. (The scene was shown onscreen recently in the 2014 film “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” directed by Ridley Scott.)

“You've got an extraordinary body of stories,” Mr. Thompson says of the Bible narrative. “They're very cinematic.” 

And religion continues to be a topic that is a part of the global culture. 

“The idea of God, of what religion talks about, is so central to the human experience," Thompson says.

In addition, “they represent stories that are familiar,” Daniel Vaca, assistant professor of religious studies at Brown University, says.

Within the past decades, 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ” proved that religious stories could attract record-breaking amounts of moviegoers. But Thompson points to the History Channel series “The Bible,” which aired in 2013 and garnered great ratings for the cable network, as more of an inspiration for these current projects. 

“The recent wave of these things comes more from the success of the History Channel,” Thompson says.

If religious viewers embrace a movie or TV show, the numbers that can result may be what keeps Hollywood trying. “You have a very large population of people for whom this is a very important part of their life and belief system,” Thompson says. 

Not all of these newer projects find viewers. The ABC series “Of Kings and Prophets” was recently canceled after just two episodes.

Attracting the audience for which these creators are aiming can be a tricky proposition. If a depiction of a Bible story, for example, goes too far in trying to appeal to both secular and religious audiences, that can make viewers who identify as religious stay away.

If a project based on a Biblical story “tries to be edgy ... sometimes that works,” Mr. Vaca says. “Sometimes that strikes that balance. But sometimes it goes over the edge of comfort [for religious viewers].” 

However, communication between religious moviegoers or TV watchers can spread the word about a religious project if people do approve of it, Vaca notes. “Maybe their minister gives it a shout-out at the Sunday service,” he says.

The 2014 movie “God’s Not Dead” performed well enough financially to spawn a sequel, which will be released on March 31. “That gained popularity through social media,” Vaca says of what made the first “God's Not Dead” movie a success. 

Thompson says he thinks faith-based stories will continue to be adapted for the big and small screens. 

“It's like Shakespeare,” Thompson says of religious themes as source material. “We keep going back to it.”

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