box office

Hollywood discovers God! Again! Seriously, this New York Times piece is worth reading

Hollywood discovers God! Again! Seriously, this New York Times piece is worth reading

I've been around the Godbeat scene so long that I can remember the days when journalists would wait four of five years before they would write the same Big Trend Story all over again.

You know the ones I'm talking about. Things like the whole "Death of the Religious Right" story or the latest update on "Why megachurches are getting bigger." And did you know that interfaith marriages are a big deal in modern Judaism?

Another one of the standards has been the "Hollywood discovers that religious people watch movies" story. Because of my longstanding interest in this topic (hint, hint), I have been watching journalists discover this trend over and over ever since "Field of Dreams" and  "Home Alone." Hey, do you remember Michael Medved? Then in 2009, The Los Angeles Times even interviewed me about the roots of this trend behind the hit movie, "The Blind Side."

You can blame Mel Gibson and "The Passion of the Christ," of course, but there is more to this evergreen story than one or two big-ticket items.

Still, I was cynical when I saw this New York Times headline the other day: "Secular Hollywood Quietly Courts the Faithful." I expected another quick-turn news feature about this "hot topic."

In this case I was wrong. The basic message of this in-depth business feature was that this is a topic that is not new and that it is not going away, in part because Hollywood has entered an era in which making profitable niche-market films is almost as important as making special-effects blockbusters. And then there is the trend of evangelical churches adding massive video screens to their sanctuaries, so that preachers can spice up their sermons with video clips.

Instead of settling for shallow coverage of the latest wrinkle in this old story, this Times piece went for the deep dive. Here is the overture:

The Rev. Roderick Dwayne Belin, a senior A.M.E. Church leader, stood before a gathering of more than 1,000 pastors in a drafty Marriott ballroom in Naperville, Ill., this month and extolled the virtues of a Hollywood movie.

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Yet another turning point in the search for Hollywood’s Christian market?

Yet another turning point in the search for Hollywood’s Christian market?

Highly secularized showbiz moguls suddenly realized that religion could pay off when Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ” posted $370 million in box office. That remains history’s highest domestic take for an R-rated movie and tops for any Christian-themed film, beating out the three  C.S. Lewis “Narnia” stories.

Woodenly scripted cheapos like 2001’s “Left Behind” that did poorly ($4.2 million total box office) no doubt dampened studio interest. Even after Gibson, Hollywood seems generally uncertain how to capitalize on this market, and treatments of faith are too often either phony or snarky. Hollywood insiders have struggled to find the magic faith-based niche formula.

But something important may be developing. Note that #5 in the Christian genre’s all-time box office is “War Room,” about the ineffable power of prayer to change lives for the better. It  grossed $67.8 million last year. Then there’s the current film “Risen,” timed for the lead-up to Easter. It earned a healthy $11.8 million with its opening last weekend and ranked #3 in the market (all data in this item are from www.boxofficemojo.com).

Both films come from Sony Pictures’ Affirm Films subsidiary, which has received surprisingly scant mainstream media coverage and has obvious potential for a good story.

Sony launched Affirm in 2007 with the mandate of “producing, acquiring, and marketing" films that uplift and inspire. Senior Vice President Rich Peluso, formerly with EMI Christian Music, says Affirm works “the space between faith and entertainment.”

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And for a change, a 'Noah' movie story that sails smoothly

Last week, I criticized USA Today’s fast-food cheeseburger of a story on the religious controversy over the new “Noah” movie. Today, I want to praise the filet-mignon level of coverage served up by CNN’s Belief Blog and Godbeat pro Daniel Burke.

Before I do so, I must confess that I have not seen the movie and may not make it soon, as I still need to catch the new Muppet and “Veronica Mars” flicks. Plus, baseball season just started (if you’re a fan, you might enjoy my column on Opening Day in Texas), so my free time is more limited. Smile.

But back on topic: Under the headline “Does God have a prayer in Hollywood?” the in-depth CNN report combines a tractor-trailer load full of meaty material, from the director’s motivation and insight to important background on faith-based films past, present and future. Throughout, the piece provides the kind of details that speak to the beat specialist getting religion.

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