Christians embrace formerly evil biz

Now that Hollywood has tackled Jesus’ offspring and his passion, it’s time for the prequel. New Line’s Christmas release “Nativity” is the next entry to tap into the growing market for Christian-themed films.

Pic, a family-friendly retelling of the Christmas story, is a departure from New Line’s usual slate of thrillers.

It follows Mary and Joseph in the year leading up to the birth of Jesus, and continues until their flight to Egypt.

Helmed by Catherine Hardwicke, cast includes “Whale Rider” star Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary, newcomer Oscar Isaacs as Joseph and Alexander Siddig as the angel Gabriel.

New Line senior VP, production, Cale Boyter says that this is the first time a studio feature has tackled the Nativity story.

“This could be the definitive Christmas movie. It’s filling a need in the market that Hollywood’s been a bit slow to pick up on.”

New Line isn’t alone in going after the “faith community” audience. A small but growing portion of the majors’ slates targets the faithful.

At the same time, the religious community is taking a hard look at how it can up its influence with the film business.

“The church is increasingly recognizing that film has become a major way, if not the major way, of telling our stories as a society,” says Rob Johnston, professor of theology and culture and co-director of the Reel Spirituality Institute.

“If 63% of all Americans saw ‘Finding Nemo’ in its first year out, then that story is influencing how we understand reality, and if the church is to be relevant it needs to join the dialogue.”

This wasn’t always the case, says Johnston. For decades, many of the faithful dismissed movies as escapist and possibly harmful.

Today, though, even comic-book tentpoles get a warm reception from the faithful, and studios are only too happy to provide Bible study guides to go with those movies.

Southern California Christian colleges such as Biola U. — which formerly banned its students from watching movies — and Azusa Pacific now have film programs and are sending aspiring professionals to Hollywood.

Christians also are interacting more heavily with movies through Web sites from the fairly objective HollywoodJesus.com to the hellfire-and-damnation review site Movieguide.org.

“That’s a very important shift that’s happened in the last 10 years,” says Johnston. ” ‘The Passion’ is one important indicator of the change that’s going on. ‘Narnia’ is another. ‘Bruce Almighty’ is another.”

The decision of Christian leaders and many of their parishioners that movies matter has created a vast “psychographic” of people who want films that are family-friendly and/or explore spiritual themes.

“You can call the Christian community a niche market,” says Boyter, “but we’re talking about 150 million-plus who go to church every week, so it’s a rather large niche. ”

Craig Detweiler, chair of the Film, Television & Radio program at Biola says, “Hollywood has rediscovered the sweet spot of the marketplace between Los Angeles and New York.

“They’ve discovered that the flyover district has plenty of dollars and plenty of interest in going to the movies if Hollywood will serve them.”

By sheer market power, that audience is beginning to influence what movies get made.

Disney and Walden were happy to stress the Christian allegorical aspects of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” helping spur socko B.O. and homevid sales.

In fact, the homevideo divisions have taken the lead in responding to the Christian aud .

Warner Home Video repackaged vintage titles “The Nun’s Story,” “The Shoes of the Fisherman” and “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima” in a “Films of Faith” box, with an endpaper that will look just fine next to a King James Bible. And Fox even plans to launch a dedicated “Fox Faith” label.

On the feature side, Sony is moving ahead with plans to film more Dan Brown stories after the “Da Vinci” triumph.

“Da Vinci,” perhaps even more than “The Passion of the Christ,” shows that there is a market for such films.

Mel Gibson’s film got enormous support from church groups of all denominations.

But Sony’s thriller, which questions the very divinity of Jesus, bowed to boffo B.O. despite active resistance from the Catholic Church — not to mention a slew of bad reviews.

‘Passion’ play

Most in the biz became aware of this audience shift with “The Passion,” but Detweiler says the real wake-up call for Hollywood should have come two years earlier, when teens rejected Britney Spears starrer “Crossroads” in favor of the more chaste Mandy Moore pic “A Walk to Remember.”

Teens voted again with “Napoleon Dynamite,” the micro-budgeted indie from Brigham Young-educated Jared Hess, which made a healthy $106 million in theaters and on DVD despite a mild PG rating.

Hess’ Jack Black starrer “Nacho Libre,” a comedy about a priest turned wrestler, opens June 16 — again with a family-friendly PG.

Hollywood is discovering that pleasing Christian moviegoers can be tricky, though.

Just as “The Da Vinci Code” split Catholic and Protestant groups, “Nativity” too has the potential to divide Christians along doctrinal lines.

After carefully vetting the script with many religious leaders, New Line hopes to deliver a movie that Christian audiences will flock to.

“They’re hungry to be entertained. You’ve just got to deliver it. This is a bid to show that ‘The Passion of the Christ’ wasn’t a fluke,” says Boyter.

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