There is a lot of buzz these days in both religious and Hollywood circles that a new relationship is being forged between faith and film. Is it for real? Or is it just a lot of hype?
Michael Flaherty, president of Walden Media, a partner with Walt Disney Studios in bringing C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to the silver screen, comes down on the side of the optimists.
“I think there's definitely an interest” in Hollywood in religious themes, he said, but added: “One of the mistakes that people make is they think they can just throw in a church scene here, throw in a bit of Scripture here. They're missing the point that it's [filmmaking] all about a great story. And so if it [religion] doesn't exist in the DNA of the story, you can't just dab it on like makeup.”
Flaherty made his comments during a panel discussion—”What Would Jesus Direct”—at the recent Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The panel was moderated by Kim Lawton, managing editor of the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.
Other members of the panel included Jonathan Bock, president of Grace Hill Media, founded in 2000 to “bridge the chasm” by marketing films to people of faith; Ralph Winter, producer of X-Men: The Last Stand, released May 26; and Academy Award-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr.
Asked whether the new interest in faith on film is about putting Bible stories on the screen, or films that may not be explicitly religious but tackle themes with religious and moral overtones, Flaherty opted for the latter.
“And you know, it's like the Apostle Paul said to the church of Philippi: Look, whatever's good, whatever's true, whatever's praiseworthy, this is where you need to be putting your focus, this is where you need to be putting your minds,” he said.
“I think that there's a lot of people in the faith community who are looking for those films that are really inspirational and uplifting and might not necessarily be considered deliberately religious per se,” he added.
But it was an explicitly religious film—Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which earned at least $370 million in the United States—that panelists pointed to as the breakthrough movie creating an awareness in Hollywood of the Christian market.
“The Passion of the Christ kicked the door open for these kinds of [religious] projects,” Winter said. “But I think they have to be entertaining. No one wants to be preached to in a movie theater.”
There's a fine line, Bock said, between the kinds of movies filmmakers want to make, the kinds of films audiences want to see, and most importantly, the kinds of films studios are willing to bankroll.
“I think the question just can't be what would Jesus direct,” Bock said. “I think it's got to be what would Jesus direct and would Paramount distribute because, look, film is a collaborative process. It requires a lot of money.”
Gooding, who won Best Supporting Actor in 1996 for his role in Jerry Maguire, said he laughs at Hollywood's timing.
“It's funny,” he said. “They go where the money is. OK, The Passion of the Christ made a … lot of money … and now everybody's scurrying to have the next faith-based project that goes through the roof. The audience has been there for years.”
Bock said Hollywood is just discovering the audience.
“The statistics are overwhelming,” he said. “For example, on Sunday, 43 percent of America was in church. Forty-three percent. And for studios not to recognize that that's an audience now, it's like a studio saying we're not making movies for men.
“What you are starting to see,” he added, “is studios are starting to put their toes in the water.” A number of studios, he said, are making small-budget films—$2 million movies—aimed at the Christian market. He said he hopes Grace Hill will play a role in reaching “he relatively untapped market of religious America.”
But he said the process is going to be evolutionary.
“I actually think it's not all that different than what African-Americans went through with seeing them come from, you know … these Blaxploitation films that were made for very small dollars, and then that kind of grew into ‘maybe we can make a buddy comedy' kind of thing.
“I think that's what we're going to see here too: low-budget Christian films that … let's call them ‘Godsploitation' films.”
Gooding said that if filmmakers are going to reach a Christian audience, they need to have a certain passion for their work.
“If it's something that the faith-based audience feels is a statement that would inspire us as Christians, or as Catholics, or whatever, then they'll rally behind it,” he said. “That's why, when you have copycat movies, when people are trying to capitalize on money, people see through that.”
The panelists agreed that most religious leaders now believe faith and pop culture need to be connected.
“Movies for many denominations were a sin,” Bock noted, “and I think what most Christian leaders have seen happen is that pop culture has moved on without them. And you can't stop it.