The blockbuster biblical epic has finally returned to Hollywood, and despite controversies among the faithful, the genre as old as cinema itself may bring studios a new flood of financial success.
“Noah,” with its $125 million budget and dazzling digital effects, created a deluge at the box office this weekend as moviegoers spent $44 million in North America and more than $95 million worldwide to take in the Hollywood version of the ancient biblical tale. Directed by Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan") and starring Academy Award winner Russell Crowe, “Noah” depicts the famous story in Genesis about the man who built an ark at God’s command and saved his family and all earth's creatures from an apocalyptic flood.
The opening-weekend success of “Noah,” however, comes after months of controversy among many believers, especially conservative Evangelical Christians, who are often suspicious of the values of Hollywood and its depiction of faith-based matters on screen. Many worried the film would distort the biblical integrity of the story and perhaps alter its sacred message.
Unlike most faith-based and biblical films of the past few decades, the success of “Noah” stands more in the Hollywood tradition of “Ben Hur” and “The Ten Commandments” – big-budget blockbusters from the silent era, then famously reprised in the 1950s with their casts of thousands and groundbreaking special effects. After the flop of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” an epic about the life of Jesus in 1965, however, such films fell out of fashion among moviemakers and audiences.
But the weekend box-office success for “Noah” bodes well for an industry that has been trying to lure to theaters the faith-based market, which has also made an unexpected hit of “God’s Not Dead,” a tiny-budget film about a Christian college student who must struggle to defend his faith against a hostile atheistic professor. The film, targeted primarily to Evangelicals, has grossed more than $22 million in two weeks.
But these are two very different types of films, and while religious films have long had a steady niche following, Hollywood studios are banking on this demographic to turn out for a new wave a biblical epics like “Noah,” set to hit theaters this year and next.
In December, “Batman” star Christian Bale will play Moses in “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” directed by action-movie legend Ridley Scott (“Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down”). And next year, Lions Gate Entertainment is planning to release “Mary: Mother of Christ,” another big-budget biblical film that some say the studio will market to an audience already entranced by strong young women like Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games.” The film is being billed as a "prequel” to Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ,” which stunned Hollywood by grossing more than $370 million.
But the return of the biblical epic, say many in the industry, has a lot to do with changes among Evangelicals themselves.
“I think what we’re seeing is that there’s really a break between two audiences in this group,” says Erik Lokkesmoe, a co-founder of Different Drummer, a global marketing and publicity agency with expertise in the religious-themed film market. An older generation of Evangelicals, he says, places more of an emphasis on the “message” of a film versus the story and sees the value of a movie in its affirmation of cultural beliefs, or even its ability to convert an audience.
“But I think that is a peaking audience,” says Mr. Lokkesmoe. “There’s certainly a market for that, but it’s not going to be the future, because I think more and more Evangelicals, especially young Evangelicals and young believers, are wanting more of a story-based, very aspirational kind of film.”
Many older, traditional Evangelicals, who grew up in an era in which film-going was forbidden, take the view of critics like Glenn Beck, the conservative commentator and devout Mormon. Mr. Beck called “Noah” a “$100 million disaster” on his radio show last week.
"It treats a prophet of God like a lunatic," Beck said. “There's no redeeming value in Noah, none. He hates people. I'm sorry. No prophet of God hates people."
But suspicions about “Noah” were far from universal among Evangelicals, and even the group Focus on the Family, a conservative broadcast ministry that has defended traditional religious views on the front lines of the culture wars since the 1970s, gave the film its blessing.
“Darren Aronofsky is not a theologian, nor does he claim to be,” said Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family. “He is a filmmaker and a storyteller, and in 'Noah', he has told a compelling story. It is a creative interpretation of the scriptural account that allows us to imagine the deep struggles Noah may have wrestled with as he answered God's call on his life.”
It is such an emphasis on the inherent ambiguities of storytelling, say industry observers, that might drive a younger generation of Evangelicals, who are more tech-savvy, diverse, and globally aware, to go out and see the new Bible-based films.
“My sense is that Noah really captured these more story-driven believers who are looking for pure entertainment that allows them to think deeply about their faith and about what it means to be a Christian – and even to create great imaginative works of art,” says Lokkesmoe.
“They want to know the reality of characters,” he continues. “They don’t want it to be fixed and predictable, they want margins to allow themselves to be able to think about it, or have meaningful conversations about what the Scriptures are saying, or what should a filmmaker be portraying on the screen when it comes to the Scriptures.”