Baptism by Film: Can Hollywood Recapture the Christian Audience?

By this point you’ve seen Darren Aronofsky’s divisive Biblical epic Noah and have probably established a strong opinion about it, as is popular right now.  Hell, you can’t go anywhere online without hearing someone talk about how it is either the most heretical piece of garbage or a thought-provoking mythical take on the classic story.  Any way you slice it, the film did rake in more than $40,000,000 dollars it’s opening weekend, solidifying the Old Testament adaptation as a hit and doubtlessly leading the way for more stories in its ilk.

But even before Noah was released, we were already prepping ourselves for the next big Bible movie: Ridley Scott’s Exodus (coming out late 2014), this time tackling the story of Moses with Christian Bale in the lead role.  In fact, earlier this year we got yet another Jesus movie, Son of God, and this Easter we’re getting the warm and fuzzy Heaven is for Real.  So what’s going on?  Is the film world all God happy all of a sudden?

Christian (heh heh) Bale will star as Moses in  Exodus  later this year.

Christian (heh heh) Bale will star as Moses in Exodus later this year.

Well everything can be traced back to 2004 when a little movie you might have heard of made headlines: The Passion of the Christ.  Its opening weekend it grossed a whopping $83 million which is more than double what our friend Noah took in this past weekend.  The Passion of the Christ not only set a new benchmark for Christian-centered entertainment, but it opened up studios’ eyes to an entire audience willing to flock to theaters in herds.

Since then we’ve seen more movies like The Nativity Story and adaptations of C.S. Lewis’s faith-based fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia.  We’ve seen children movies like Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie get big screen releases and even the post-apocalyptic genre got a taste with 2010’s The Book of Eli.  But although filmmakers have been able to make a pretty penny on the Christian market, they haven’t been able to once again recapture their attention like they did with Mel Gibson’s 2004 passion project (you see what I did there?).

Here's a visual aid, in case you didn't see what I did there.

Here's a visual aid, in case you didn't see what I did there.

Why is that?  The people are obviously there, but why aren’t they coming out in droves to support more movies like this?  Well for one thing, there’s more than one kind of “Christian”, and The Passion of the Christ just so happened to strike at an event that they all share in common.  In all the different versions of the Bible you’ll still find the story of Jesus marching to his death on a cross.  It’s a powerful story that all Christians from different faiths can relate to, and it’s one they hold very dear.  So when Mel Gibson came along and made a film portraying that event in a serious, unflinching way, they ate it up instantly.  It was a rare instance where fine filmmaking and great storytelling converged on one important point.

Now with every attempt by Hollywood to recapture that reaction, they have run into roadblocks.  One film might not be theologically accurate enough for one brand of Christian, or perhaps it just isn’t made well enough to be taken seriously by anyone.  Book of Eli received praise in some markets for its portrayal of blind faith, but was bashed by Christian denominations who didn’t read the King James Bible.  The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, wasn’t bold enough in its assertions as a faith-based film for some, and was forgettably bland for others.  I would argue that Noah is actually the closest a major studio has come to bringing that audience back into the theater in years, and even that movie is dividing Christian audiences because of the creative liberties it takes with the Biblical account.



Meanwhile, smaller studios have been trying to reignite the fire through more explicitly “Christian” movies.  Movies like Fireproof and God’s Not Dead have tried using social media to grow a following, but the most they’ve achieved is recognition that they exist and a few approving nods from some churches.  These are the sorts of films that are preaching to the choirs, and while they might make their fellow brethren feel better about themselves, they do very little in attracting a wider audience.

So what will it take for major studios to get blessed butts back in those cushioned seats?  We see hints that they still exist, as with Noah and the television mini series that made waves this year, The Bible, but we have yet to see this same audience make the same splash they did back in 2004.  Perhaps all it will take is a story people from all walks of faith share in common and a filmmaker who understands what they want to see.  Maybe The Passion of the Christ was a one time thing, a fluke that someone landed in the right place at the right time?  Biblical epics aren’t a new thing; Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments came out long before Mel Gibson was even born.  Maybe one day the tastes of modern audiences will intersect perfectly with what God-fearing people want to see and we’ll get another huge turn-out.  But for now, they can be thankful for what they have and always pray someone gets it right again.

Them and studio execs.

Joe Campbell is a short film director and movie enthusiast.  You can follow him on Twitter@CredoFilms1 or on Google+.  Also check out his OTHER film review blog where he occasionally remembers to post stuff.