Filmmakers find faith: Religious-themed stories make a comeback in theatres


“At the Producers Guild of America’s most recent conference, producer Mark Burnett got up and said he planned to spend the next 15 years making films about Jesus and the Bible,” recalls Dr. Ted Baehr, the founder of Movieguide, a publication that offers detailed analysis of current movies from a Christian and family-friendly perspective. “He said, ‘Jesus is real. The Bible is real.’ And he got a standing ovation. Ninety percent of the room stood and applauded.”

Producers don’t usually evoke a church-going image. But no one can dispute their love of money, and faith-based Christian films have a huge audience and are making big bucks. Consider this: Son of God, Heaven Is for Real and God’s Not Dead were—and had been for weeks—among the top 15 grossing films at the time this story was written. Though most religious movies continue to exist under the radar as they are targeted specifically at a faith-based audience, the genre is becoming increasingly mainstream and in recent months there has been an outpouring and more are on the way: e.g., Exodus: Gods and Kings; Mary, Mother of Christ; The Letters (see our profile below); and Left Behind, the latter inspired by Christian Rapture books.

Religion has also made its presence felt on the small screen, most notably “Touched by an Angel,” starring Roma Downey, and The History Channel’s The Bible, produced by Downey and her husband Mark Burnett. Their film, Son of God, was an abridged version of the TV mini-series, though interestingly, a satanic figure in the television program, who bore a striking resemblance to President Obama, was dropped from the film.

“No one expected The Bible to have 100 million viewers,” says Baehr. “The critics thought it was clunky. It’s the Bible. It’s episodic. What do you expect? The theologians had their biases. But the people liked it. Everyone wants to be saved. The creators of Superman, who were Jewish, say they included the Jesus myth.”

It’s no fluke that at least two of the major studios—Sony and Fox—now have divisions that specialize in religious films. And Heaven Is for Real’s production team included Bishop T.D. Jakes, a mega-church pastor. The powers that be are becoming increasingly aware of a hitherto untapped market. Most of those interviewed for this article speak about the traditional “vacuum” in entertainment for religious Christians who in fact represent the majority in this country.

The films run the gamut in sensibility and style. Some are big-budget, while others are produced for relatively small amounts. Some are inspired by Bible stories and still others boast covert Christian themes and values.

And some are controversial—most recently, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, starring Russell Crowe in the title role. Some liked the film as entertainment and were optimistic because, if nothing else, it opened up a discussion about Noah, propelling many viewers to read the Book of Genesis. The movie put Christians in the middle of mainstream culture. Critics, on the other hand, claimed that The Bible was portrayed inaccurately and far too many liberties were taken.

Independent producer Paul Lalonde argues that in Aronofsky’s spin, “God’s plan was to kill everyone on the planet and Noah saved them by disobeying God. That’s not what The Bible says. The Bible says that Noah and his family were saved by God. But in this film, Noah saved the world. Russell Crowe saved the world. You can’t have God save the world. They changed core elements of the biblical story that didn’t need to be changed. They could have made an additional $100 million if they had not made those changes.”

Lalonde, who heads Stoney Lake Entertainment, is currently producing the remake of the popular Rapture novel Left Behind. Previously, he and his brother Peter ran Cloud Ten Pictures, which produced the original Left Behind trilogy and other End Times apocalyptic thrillers for faith-based audiences.

Faith-based films are nothing new. Indeed, questions of morality—and by extension religious themes—permeate most films, says Fr. Michael Morris, a professor who teaches courses in religion and film at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, Calif. In addition, movies based on biblical stories surface periodically reflecting their respective zeitgeists, he notes. The religious blockbusters of the 1950s—Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur—emerged in a post-World War II universe looking for spiritual meaning, while the rock operas of the early ’70s—Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar—were inspired by Broadway productions and reflected a late-’60s counterculture sensibility.

What followed was an idiosyncratic anti-Jesus movement with such films as The Passover Plot, “which was killed by evangelical protest and then revived when Martin Scorsese’s 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ came out and the producers realized there was a market for anti-Jesus films,” Fr. Morris observes.

On the flip side—and admittedly 16 years later—the watershed moment for today’s plethora of faith-based films was Mel Gibson’s controversial blockbuster The Passion of the Christ, viewed by many as excessively violent and virulently anti-Semitic. Gibson’s personal anti-Semitism—openly voiced—only added fuel to the fire. To what extent those elements diminished or enhanced box-office revenue is debatable. Indisputable, however, was the large audience the movie generated—earning more than $370 million compared with Temptation’s just under $8.5 million. It became obvious just how huge the following was for faith-based movies, and in the past decade that audience has only grown. A huge portion is evangelical Christians, though Christians of all stripes are lining up to see these films.

Deep religious conviction, disaffection with the cultural values at large, and a sense of being targeted by the media are contributing factors. “Next to the Nazis, has any group been viewed as more of an enemy than evangelicals?” asks Fr. Morris. “Like early Christians, they feel a little persecuted. So they are now producing films that convey their message. They have the moxie and finances. Jews have done this. And so have African-Americans. Now Protestants are doing it. That’s new.”

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), is not remotely surprised at the trend. Indeed, he’s “surprised that anyone is surprised. The Bible is the number one best-seller and people read about it and care about it,” he points out. “We are a religious country. Depending on the poll, 50-60-70 percent of Americans profess a belief in God and a belief that their prayers get answered. And they view Tim Tebow as a hero because he prays. So, no, I’m not surprised. I’m only surprised that more of these films have not come out.”

However, relatively few pictures about Jews and Judaism have come down the pike, he notes, adding ironically, “For people who supposedly control Hollywood, you can count on the finger of one hand the number of pictures about Jews being made.”

Not unexpectedly, there are production companies that specialize in creating faith-based films. As they’ve grown, many partner with major studios for distribution purposes. But some are determined to fly solo in order to maintain their vision and they’re discovering that they can make millions without the benefit of mainstream Hollywood, which in their view might simply dilute their efforts. Pure Flix (God’s Not Dead) and Stoney Lake Entertainment are two notable examples.

“I had nice offers from four studios to distribute and we turned down every one of them because it’s a loss of control,” asserts Lalonde. “If I worked with one of the studios, at the end of the film everyone would be looking up at the sky and a giant UFO would appear. That would make it palatable to Hollywood, which has not yet learned the lesson that Christians are the vast majority, take their faith and Bible seriously and want to see it portrayed accurately onscreen.”

Lalonde has little doubt that Hollywood boasts a deeply ingrained anti-Christian bias. He says, “If the Rapture were based on Mayan prophecy instead of Christian prophecy, that movie would have been made by Hollywood long ago.”

Lalonde is now targeting mainstream audiences in addition to the faith-based and says his upcoming and latest incarnation of Left Behind will be as Christian-themed as the earlier version but will represent a major step up in terms of budget, production value, and star power, with Nicolas Cage playing the lead. The marriage of Christian views with high-level acting, tightened storytelling and state-of-the-art production represents a new genre that will cross over and reach a much wider audience, he asserts.

“It’s an action thriller and the message is organic to the story,” he says. “It’s not a sermon in disguise, unlike our previous films that were preachy. But then, 90 percent of that audience was already faith-based and the movie didn’t make any effort to reach beyond that crowd. And that’s still typical.”

In the most striking development to date, EchoLight Studios—headed by former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum—will be producing, directing and distributing original faith-based films to local churches across the country, which will serve as venues for these movies.

EchoLight’s first film, A Generation Away, will be launched in September. It’s a documentary that explores the idea that religious freedoms are being eroded. Several features, mostly based on true inspirational stories, are also ready to go and will be released to churches over the next two years. One film centers on a family overcoming horrific odds, thanks to its faith; another considers an ambitious young ballerina who, having left the fold to pursue her career, re-embraces Christian values and finds genuine fulfillment.

It’s too early to know how many churches will sign up for the films or the precise logistics and finances involved. But make no mistake: This is big business and large sums of money may be generated not simply through the movies, but also the sale of DVDs and VOD viewings. The target cost for each film is $1 to $3 million, which is modest.

Jeff Sheets, president of EchoLight, points to the 310,000 churches in America and more than 100 million who consider themselves Christians. The market is ripe. Interestingly, a number of producers of faith-based films have asked EchoLight to distribute their movies. Though these films were all turned down because they were not quite in sync with EchoLight’s mission, Sheets says that might be an avenue of business down the road.

Asked if he foresees a time when the church circuit becomes a springboard to a theatrical release, Sheets says they’re not thinking in those terms at this point. “That’s tangential. We want the church to once again become the number-one influence in people’s lives,” he notes. “Right now, it’s number 16. Movies are number one. We want to bring them together.”

Nobody interviewed believes the outpouring of faith-based films is a passing phase. Indeed, they all agree these films will become increasingly sophisticated onscreen and savvy in their marketing capacities off-screen. The goal will be to attract new audiences while not alienating their original fan base. The key is finding the right language and technology—including social media and YouTube—to reach an audience. And it always helps if the movie’s star shares the Christian sentiments voiced in the film, says Scott A. Shuford, founder of FrontGate Media, a leading marketing and public-relations firm, specializing in targeting faith-based consumers.

He admits Noah was an especially challenging film to market, in part thanks to director Aronofsky and star Crowe, who distanced themselves from any religious leanings. “In the press, Darren was quoted as saying Noah was the least biblical film ever made. There was a disconnect there.”

So, is this trend good news, bad news, or not necessarily either? Opinions vary. Foxman, for example, equivocates. As a Jew, he is keenly aware that faith-based films can step on toes. “We need to be vigilant and sensitive. What happened with Mel Gibson didn’t happen with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey [when they made Son of God]. They reached out. I don’t feel there’s any need to be concerned. But I take nothing for granted. The Bible has been used as a club against us. Let’s hope Vatican II makes it to the cutting-room floor.”

Fr. Morris, on the other hand, believes Christian-themed movies have the capacity to build bridges between people. “So far, evangelicals have been demonized in the media. That has forced them to enter the arts and fight back. It’s not scary. It’s an interesting point and counterpoint. If they have a provocative anti-media idea, it will now be played out in the arts and that’s a good arena—a great forum—for ideas to be discussed.”

A Spiritual Transformation
Producer William C. Riead has had a curious journey. Best known for helming screamingly secular TV movies, he had no intention of making a religious film when he wrote, directed and produced The Letters, a biopic of Mother Teresa, slated to be released this fall and starring Juliet Stevenson. Much buzz surrounds her performance and this film. Riead insists his impulse was humanitarian and he was not creating a film for faith-based audiences, though it will speak to them on a very profound level.

“While a general audience will relate to the film as an accurate biopic and be grateful that Mother Teresa has been brought back to life, the faith-based will grasp her devotion to Christ and God,” he says. “Everything about her was about God. Repeatedly, she said, ‘I’m just a pencil in God’s hand. It’s not about me. It’s about Jesus, it’s about God.’ She says everything a faith-based audience wants to hear about Christianity. She was a true believer. Selfless, selfless, selfless. Everything Jesus was, she was.”

Riead, who describes himself as a believer, but without wearing it on his sleeve, admits that making the film was “a calling,” especially in the wake of the September 11 terrorist campaign. He says the attacks were pure evil and he was determined to create an epic film that demonstrated the polar opposite of evil. Who better than Mother Teresa? In the end, the research, writing and shooting of the film transformed him. The project took more than a decade to be completed and he has not taken one dime in salary. He says whatever monies are forthcoming, 50% of will be donated to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

“I am certainly more spiritual than I was,” he reports. “When I wake up, I say, ‘Good morning, God. I’m you’re humble employee. What do you want me to do today?’ Whatever credit the film gets belongs to God. I didn’t make the film. God did. I thank God for guiding me. I’m as amazed at the film as anyone else. I’m humbled by it. I hope the Old Man is happy and when I get to the other side I hope God high-fives me and says, ‘Well done!’"

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Paul Lalonde's brother Peter is co-head of Stoney Lake Entertainment. The brothers worked together on its predecessor, Cloud Ten Pictures.