Roma Downey

Trump is what matters: Mark Burnett/Roma Downey faith duet gets a nod in The New Yorker

Trump is what matters: Mark Burnett/Roma Downey faith duet gets a nod in The New Yorker

During the summer of 2017, I spent some time trying to get ahold of Mark Burnett, originator of “The Apprentice,” “Survivor,” “Shark Tank” and other reality TV shows.

I was researching a story on Paula White, A key spiritual advisor to Donald Trump. She’d told me she’d held Bible studies for cast members of “The Apprentice” and I wanted to see if Burnett would talk about having her on the set.

This Hollywood player had an obvious Christian connection, as he’d been married to “Touched by an Angel” co-star Roma Downey since 2007, so I thought a few questions about Paula’s Bible studies shouldn’t faze him. But he’d been under pressure to release tapes from “The Apprentice” (so people can check to see if Trump said anything outrageous on them), so he was not commenting on anything to do with the show. Downey, by the way, is one of the most openly Christian actresses in Hollywood.

So I was intrigued to read more about his religious journey in a new story out in The New Yorker. The gist of this long tale isn’t faith by any means. Like so much news fodder these days, the key is Trump, Trump, Trump.

This feature story wanders around, asking this question: Does Burnett feel any responsibility for staging the show that propelled Trump toward the presidency? In other words, Burnett created this monster and how does he live with it?

Answer: Very well. If Burnett feels any qualms about his curious role in American history, he’s not talking about it. As good and insightful as the article is –- and I certainly learned a lot from it –- I’ll not be dwelling on most of it. But I do have something to say about the religious parts.

Downey, who grew up in a Catholic family in Northern Ireland, is deeply religious, and eventually Burnett, too, reoriented his life around Christianity. “Faith is a major part of our marriage,” Downey said, in 2013, adding, “We pray together.”

For people who had long known Burnett, it was an unexpected turn. This was a man who had ended his second marriage during a live interview with Howard Stern. … In 2008, Burnett’s longtime business partner, a lawyer named Conrad Riggs, filed a lawsuit alleging that Burnett had stiffed him to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. …

Years ago, Burnett told Esquire that religion was “a waste of time.” (Second wife) Dianne Burnett told me that when she was married to him he had no interest in faith. “But you know what? People change,” she continued.

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The Atlantic covers (sort of) the Ben-Hur flop and the epic quest to sell Christian films

The Atlantic covers (sort of) the Ben-Hur flop and the epic quest to sell Christian films

Let me start with a question: I do not know if the following piece from The Atlantic is a news report, an opinion essay or a movie review.

It addresses a topic that is certainly worthy of a news report -- the box-office flop (so far, I guess) of the latest version of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Lurking behind this movie is a larger topic, which is Hollywood's ongoing attempt to tap into the "Christian audience" that turned out for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in 2004.

Studio executives have been chasing Gibson's Passion demographic for a decade and major newsrooms have been covering those efforts over and over and over. Like I said, this is a topic worthy of serious reporting.

Here's the crucial question: Is this "Christian" niche a $50 million or so marketplace for low-budget movies or a place where Hollywood players can find the magic formula that produces big box-office bucks for major releases that cost $100 or so? So that's what is going on in this Atlantic piece, that ran with this headline:

Ben-Hur Was Hollywood’s Epic $100M Mistake
The film flopped hard at the box office after studios tried to copy the success of 2004's The Passion of the Christ.

The following summary material is long, but you need to read it to understand my main point in this post.

The fifth film adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was a $100 million co-production between Paramount Pictures and MGM. It starred the relatively unknown British actor Jack Huston in the title role, was directed by the mid-tier action maestro Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), and drew largely negative reviews. Many critics noted the film’s supreme inferiority to William Wyler’s 1959 version of the tale, which won 11 Oscars and is widely viewed as one of the greatest classic Hollywood epics. Just the idea of remaking Wyler’s film feels like a colossal error in an age of tiresome franchise reboots -- but when you consider how studios tried to belatedly capitalize on religious audiences to save the movie, the existence of Ben-Hur seems all the more cynical.

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Powers that be at NBC-TV placed a big bet on the Bible, and sorta lost

Powers that be at NBC-TV placed a big bet on the Bible, and sorta lost

What’s the future for quality, religiously themed dramas on U.S. broadcast television? That story theme, which reporters could develop with help from entertainment industry analysts, emerges from the track record  of “A.D.: The Bible Continues.” This NBC miniseries about the birth of Christianity, drawn from  the biblical Book of Acts,  wrapped on June 21.

Broadcasters often relegate religious fare to the Christmas and Easter seasons and the rest of the year may depict devout characters in bit parts that are not always flattering to faith.  However, NBC placed a big bet on a reverential series that was adjudged “handsomely mounted” but “thuddingly earnest” by Variety, the showbiz bible. The first episode ran on Easter Sunday and the programs were then granted another consecutive 11 Sundays in prime time including the May ratings “sweeps.” That’s coveted TV real estate.

NBC’s  innovation made commercial sense, you’d think, given past box-office results and hoped-for viewership among millions upon millions of U.S. churchgoers. Moreover, star producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey had scored an impressive surprise hit on cable TV with their similar 2013 miniseries “The Bible” on the History Channel (jointly owned by ABC-Disney and Hearst).  The first episode drew 13.1 million viewers, others consistently posted above 10 million, and the Easter Sunday conclusion had an audience of 11.7 million. It was the second most popular miniseries the channel has ever carried.

However, NBC’s 2015 outing was a different matter, which probably underscores the difference between cable and broadcast in this era of fragmentation and specialized niche audiences.

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Inside the History Channel's epic TV miniseries 'The Bible'

This is one of those GetReligion follow-up posts where we basically say, “See, was that so hard?”

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