Hollywood gets religion: Christian audiences happy to see 2014 become year of the faith-based movie
Goodbye, vampire and zombie flicks. Hollywood will spend 2014 mining a more ancient set of supernatural dramas: those found in the Bible.
Faith-based movies opening soon
In February and March, three faith-based movies will be opening in theaters.
"Son of God," Feb. 27:
20th Century Fox is first out of the gate this year with "Son of God," garnered from the History Channel's hit 2013 miniseries "The Bible." (A sequel titled "A.D." is set to air next year on NBC.) The miniseries averaged 11.4 million viewers and became America's most watched cable show of 2013. Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado portrays Jesus.
"God's Not Dead," March 21:
College freshman and devout Christian Josh Wheaton, played by Shane Harper, finds his faith challenged on day one of philosophy class by atheist Professor Radisson, played by Kevin Sorbo. Radisson begins class by informing students that they must disavow God or face a failing grade. The cast features Willie and Korie Robertson of "Duck Dynasty" fame.
"Noah," March 28:
Audiences will get their first look at the much-publicized, $150 million epic retelling of the world's most famous ship builder. Russell Crowe stars as Noah, joining an all-star cast that includes Emma Watson as Noah's adopted daughter, Jennifer Connelly as his wife, and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah.
With at least a half-dozen major Christian movies set for release this year, Hollywood is embracing the views - or at least the wallets - of Christian audiences.
More 2014 faith-based movies
"Heaven is for Real," April 16:
Based on The New York Times best-selling book by the same name, this story features a small-town father who must find the conviction to share his son's extraordinary experience. The film stars Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo with Kelly Reilly as Sonja Burpo, the real-life couple whose son Colton (played by newcomer Connor Corum) claims to have visited heaven during a near-death experience.
"Left Behind," June 19:
The movie is based on the first book in the hugely popular book series of the same name written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. It focuses on the hours immediately following the Rapture when millions of people vanish, and the ones left behind face the chaos around them. The movie stars Nicholas Cage, Jordin Sparks and Chad Michael Murray.
"Exodus," Dec. 12:
Moses returns for the epic retelling of Exodus in this film directed by Ridley Scott of "Blade Runner" and "Prometheus" fame. The film stars Christian Bale as Moses leading the Israelites from the grips of slavery at the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh.
And that's not all.
In 2015, watch for "Mary Mother of Christ," whose title character will be played by Odeya Rush, a 16-year-old Israeli-born actress.
Other faith-based projects meandering around Hollywood include a Cain and Abel movie directed by Will Smith and a Pontius Pilate picture starring Brad Pitt.
Sure, decades ago viewers flocked to epics such as "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments," and semi-recently they turned out for "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004 and the "Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" in 2005.
But let's be honest.
Hollywood and America's Christian masses haven't exactly been on the same moral journey of late.
Which is why the list of overtly faith-based films coming out makes some wonder: Has Hollywood found its religion?
OK, maybe not religion itself. But perhaps Hollywood leaders have realized how many regular Joes and Janes out there are searching for life's meaning - and will buy a movie ticket or two along their quest to find it.
They will be joined by masses of already devoted Christians willing to part with $10 to see Noah, for instance, save humanity on the big screen, said Thomas Keating, associate theater professor at Charleston Southern University.
"Hollywood realizes that there is a market for these Christian films where they might have been reluctant in the past," Keating said. "Now they are willing to make an investment."
Local Christians said they don't care as much about why Hollywood is producing these movies as whether they will share their faith through top-notch productions.
"Whether they truly realize the value of these films or are simply trying to tap into a large Christian audience, if the result is more high-quality movies upholding positive values, I am all for it," said Beth Jones, a Summerville mother of three sons who struggles to find movies without gratuitous violence, sex and crude language.
She plans to see this year's faith-based films.
"Whenever a movie is produced that upholds Christian values, I want to be supportive of it," Jones said.
Ben Treiber, a CSU student, has long been a movie buff. He sees God at work in the upcoming spate of films.
"God, being omnipresent, can use people, music, prayer, even a movie theater to give a message," Treiber said.
In fact, the movies could strike evangelical gold if they are well-made and reach beyond traditional Christian audiences.
"People who aren't believers may watch a movie that is different from their values if it's done very well," said Josh Surratt, weekend experience pastor at Seacoast Church.
This year's film roster also could change the stereotype of Christian media as leaning a bit cheesy and lacking in quality, said Peter Rothermel, director of Christian faith formation for the Diocese of South Carolina.
Take the upcoming epic film "Noah," showcasing special effects and a $150 million budget, not to mention megastar Russell Crowe, and he sees hope for blockbuster quality.
"It raises the potential for me to go see it," Rothermel said.
Keating said he's eager to hear debates over which movies are best: the star-studded "Noah," or the college students debating faith in "God's Not Dead," or the real-life story in "Heaven is for Real."
And even if the films take too much license with their scriptural scripts, therein lies much fodder for Bible studies and sermons.
"At the very least, it provides for good discussion," Rothermel said.
Spread the word
Spread the word
The roster of Christian films kicks off Thursday when local theaters hold their first showings of "Son of God."
Promising epic Hollywood drama as well as quality, the 20th Century Fox film features Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado portraying Christ's birth, life, death and resurrection.
The film's genesis began with the History Channel miniseries "The Bible," created by husband-and-wife team actress Roma Downey and producer Mark Burnett. The series became the top cable show of the year, received three Emmy Award nominations and proved the size of Christian audiences.
Now "Son of God" boasts an endorsement list that reads like a list of Who's Who of Christian leaders, including Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen and Max Lucado. Those endorsements are important to pastors considering whether to recommend movies to their ranks.
"You know what you're getting," Rothermel said.
And the film isn't just a film. "Son of God" is a whole Christian education epic unto itself. The movie's website offers tools for preaching, teaching and evangelizing, not to mention group tickets and suggestions for hosting movie parties.
Other Christian-based movies also are seeking, and receiving, support from Christian communities.
"God's Not Dead" already has received more than 1,100 requests from churches for group tickets, a statement from Pure Flix Entertainment said. And it doesn't open for another month.
Are these signs that Hollywood and its audiences are seeking something beyond superheroes, sex scenes and explosions?
"Non-Christians will have an opportunity to be exposed to things they haven't been exposed to before," Keating said. "The Bible is a great story."
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.