In the beginning, God said, "Let there be light"—but He might've added, "Camera! Action!" Since the genesis of moviemaking, Hollywood has turned to the Good Book for story inspiration, from silent-movie versions of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur in the 1920s to…well…blockbuster remakes of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur in the 1950s!
When The Greatest Story Ever Told flopped in 1965, studios mostly forsook biblical spectacles. Even divine profits for The Passion of the Christ in 2004 didn't inspire execs to sign Jesus to a multipicture deal.
But miracles do happen, and now religious epics are flooding theaters again like 40 days and nights of rain. Son of God, adapted from the popular History Channel miniseries The Bible, opened mightily last month. Noah with Russell Crowe as the master shipbuilder sails into theaters this week on a wave of mass marketing. The film also stars Emma Watson, Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Hopkins. And in December, Christian Bale's Batman, er, Moses will lead the Exodus out of Egypt.
"The studios realize there's a huge Christian market, and they're beginning to tap into it," says Dr. Linda Seger, a script consultant, seminar leader, and the author of nine books on screenwriting and three books on spirituality. "People in the industry are not being as scared of us."
However, the industry is still nervous about how to attract the broadest demographic possible. "Everyone says they want a mass audience, and they want to reach non-Christians. But the obvious place to start marketing is with Christians."
Seger knows from experience, having worked on Luther (2003) with Joseph Fiennes as the titular monk who leads the Protestant Reformation. The movie was less than blessed at the box office. "They didn't have enough money for marketing," she says. "They were so concerned about reaching non-Christians that they didn't really reach anyone, because they didn't start with their core audience. You begin there and then start moving out."
Studios are now attempting to engage with the faithful. They've enlisted Christian marketing consultants, screened different versions of their films for religious test audiences, and sought endorsements from spiritual leaders and pastors. This outreach could help create some holy-moly hits, though nothing is written in stone tablets.
"Nobody can say for sure what a hit is going to be," Seger says. "You market the best you can. You do everything the best you can—sound writing, sound directing, sound images, and sound theology. Then you put it out there and hope people notice."
If enough moviegoers do notice, expect studios to release other Bible-based movies already in development, including a Pontius Pilate biopic with Brad Pitt, a Cain and Abel project from Will Smith, a David and Goliath actioner and even another reboot of Ben-Hur.
The challenge then becomes not just resurrecting the biblical genre but also giving it everlasting life. As Seger says, "Can studios allow there to be a failure and at the same time recognize the successes? A lot of times when opportunities start opening up, you have one failure, and that's it."
Faced with Job-like trials, will Hollywood continue to keep the faith? Heaven only knows.