Building upon a growing interest in faith-based productions, the creators of the successful television miniseries "The Bible" soon will take the message of Christian faith to moviegoers with a full-length feature film.
A movie adaption of "The Bible," called "Son of God" and highlighting the life of Jesus Christ, has been purchased by 20th Century Fox, which will release it to theaters nationwide on Feb. 28.
The movie portends a revival of Hollywood turning to the scripture for inspiration, as other Biblical accounts are being readied for the big screen.
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Combining previously aired and unused footage from the 10-part "The Bible" miniseries, "Son of God" will run more than two hours. The studio is banking on its TV popularity, which shocked many when its two-hour finale, broadcast in March on the History Channel, earned blockbuster ratings.
About 13 million viewers tuned in to the show's finale, which portrayed the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It marked the History Channel's highest-watched show and garnered three Emmy nominations, later selling close to 1 million units on DVD, Blu-ray, and DigitalHD platforms.
Columbia Pictures executive DeVon Franklin says the marketplace for faith-based films always has been vibrant, but Biblical epics likely are the next wave of that genre that Hollywood will produce.
For Easter 2014, his studio is releasing "Heaven is for Real," a T.D. Jakes and Joe Roth-produced film adaption of the best-selling 2010 book and starring Academy Award-nominee Greg Kinnear.
"It is an audience that is underserved," Franklin told Newsmax. "We are continually trying to provide great content and quality films to what I believe is an exciting audience but also a growing one."
Veteran film critic and Breitbart News assistant editor Christian Toto agrees that "there is an untapped audience" for such programming.
"There are people out there who are deeply religious and they look at the Cineplex and say there is nothing there for me, whether it's too violent, there are too many anti-heroes, or a general suspicion of Hollywood that has not catered to that audience for a long time," Toto told Newsmax.
"Faith-based films, up until recently, have been on a small scale with no big star, and yet they have been doing quite well at the box office," he said. "I think Hollywood is awakening to the fact that this is profitable. I think 'The Bible's' showing made that clear."
The TV series was produced by Mark Burnett and his wife, actress Roma Downey, for Hearst Entertainment & Syndication. Burnett also has made a name for himself in Hollywood, producing such popular reality shows as "Survivor," "The Apprentice," "Shark Tank," and most recently, the singing competition,"The Voice."
"We are very excited to be working with 20th Century Fox to release 'Son of God' as a major motion picture," Burnett and Downey, the movie's producers, said in a statement. "We responded to an overwhelming demand for 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' to be seen as a shared experience on the big screen. The result is a beautiful stand-alone movie. It's the story of Jesus for a whole new generation."
Phil Cooke, a Burbank, Calif., filmmaker, media consultant and author, says Christians are perfect target group for the film industry.
"Hollywood bends over backward all the time to court very small interest groups — feminists, environmentalists, people who are gay — but there are more than 91 million evangelical Christians in the U.S., which makes us the largest special-interest group of all," Cooke said. "What baffles me is why Hollywood doesn't take that audience more seriously. We are the mainstream audience."
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Cooke, author of "Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brand and Social Media," advises churches, ministers, and other Christian groups about how best to get their messages across. He said he was amused that soon after "The Bible" TV series aired, he received calls from three major news organizations whose reporters were "baffled" that anyone would want to watch such programming.
"They come from such a secular worldview that it had never crossed their minds that someone would be interested in TV series about the Bible," he said. "There are a lot of Christian folks out there. Forget ideology. It's just good business. When you have that many potential customers and you're not trying to reach them with a product specifically for them . . . Hollywood, I think, needs to understand the business potential of that."
In 2008, a small-budget film called "Fireproof," starring Christian actor Kirk Cameron, sparked renewed attention after it became a surprise hit, grossing more than $33 million, highest among independent films that year.
Now, nine years after "The Passion of the Christ" earned nearly $612 million worldwide, another Bible-centric epic is headed to the big screen, kindling hopes that Hollywood will return to Bible-based projects of the 1950s and 1960s, when films such as "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments" became classics.
Currently being tested by Jewish and Christian audiences is the blockbuster Old Testament story "Noah," directed by "Black Swan's" Darren Aronofsky and starring such big names as Russell Crowe in the title role, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, and Jennifer Connelly.
Its budget is $125 million, and, by some reports, growing, making it a massive gamble on a well-known Biblical story.
Also in development, according to IMDB.com, is "The Redemption of Cain," a take on the Cain versus Abel story from the Old Testament book of Genesis about the battling sons of Adam and Eve. A-list actor Will Smith is set to direct the Bible classic.
For Franklin, of Columbia Pictures, faith-based films are personally and professionally important.
"I absolutely want to make films that inspire people and bring people hope and make a positive change to the culture," he said. "Being able to make films that have faith messages … that's one of the reasons to make films in general. It's the power of being able to change people's lives."
"I do believe there is a crossover and a mainstream audience for material that is faith-inspired," he said, "and I certainly want to be able to prove that is the case with 'Heaven is for Real.'"
Getting it right for all audiences presents a difficult hurdle, particularly with a religious crowd, Toto says.
"That is the challenge Hollywood faces — doing it justice and being faithful and supportive of the source material. It's all well and good to make a movie named 'Noah,' but if it disagrees with the philosophies of the church, those folks will be angry and not trust other such films coming out in the future."
Cooke points to other series in the works, including one from Burnett and Downey chronicling the New Testament book of Acts. Others in the entertainment business would be wise to take note of the trend, he said.
"This is the most successful living producer in television and he's going full-speed ahead with Bible projects. If that guy thinks there's an audience for that, we should explore that further."
But as Hollywood reaches to Christianity for its storytelling, Cooke believes Christians must "lighten up" and not dismiss its message-spreading power to spark a deeper conversation about faith.
"We need to suck it up a little bit and realize the value of these creating cultural conversations about the Bible. It's so incredibly remarkable, I'm willing to give them a little slack," he said. "We try our best. We don’t want them to cross dangerous theological boundaries, but I'm willing to give them enormous slack just to get that out there.
Cooke adds: "I've never met people who got saved watching a movie, but it's caused them to reconsider what they think about God. We need to be mature enough to understand that no, Hollywood isn't going to make Bible stories the way we grew up with them. But I think that if they are willing to spend that much alone on a story like Noah, count me in."
"Anything that allows me to start a conversation with a friend or coworker about God, that works for me," Cooke said. '"The Passion of the Christ" got millions of people talking about Christ's death and resurrection."
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