Faith-friendly theme no guarantee of success

“In God we trust.” That line appears on every penny of the $609 million “The Passion of the Christ” earned at the box office. And Hollywood heard the trumpets, so to speak: To see that kind of coin, adopt the same mantra.

In the three years since “The Passion” was released, Disney’s Christian-themed “The Chronicles of Narnia” and Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code” both outpaced Mel Gibson’s film, earning $745 million and $758 million worldwide, respectively.

But studios are also learning that a faith-friendly theme is no guarantee of success.

New Line’s Bible-based “The Nativity Story” was perceived as a disappointment, based on its reported budget, although it’s likely to get a big push in homevideo next holiday season. Grace Hill Media prexy Jonathan Bock (a consultant on both “Narnia” and “Nativity”) argues that its $47 million international haul wasn’t bad for a film without Mel Gibson behind the camera or major stars in front of it.

“The problem in this world right now is it’s a little hard to gauge what’s a success,” Bock says. “With ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ the bar is already set at $600 million. “

So where is the next crossover “faith-based” blockbuster going to come from?

“Religion in Hollywood today is like sex in the ’50s in cinema: It’s going on, but we’re not going to show it,” jokes one Christian filmmaker.

And now, slowly but surely, Christians are coming out of the closet.

“It manifests itself by more and more Christian producers presenting us with projects, projects for which they’ve been able to raise significant amounts of money and attract stars,” says David Bixler, senior VP of acquisitions for Fox homevid, who is deeply involved in the nascent Fox Faith label. “They’re playing in the same pond as other Hollywood producers, and they’re playing in it successfully.”

Fox Faith is one of several companies committed to pursuing the faith market; others include the Weinstein Co., Lionsgate and the Anschutz Film Group’s sister companies Walden Media and Bristol Bay.

Like the Warner Faith and Sony Triumph labels, Fox Faith originated as a homevid operation, but the company is committed to releasing modestly budgeted theatrical films that fit its mission.

The company may find an ally in producer Ralph Winter, whose credits include “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four.” Winter is an avowed believer who is also developing stories aimed at the religious audience. He has a first-look deal at Fox.

“I think primarily it’s got to be entertainment, that’s the business we’re in,” says Winter. “You’ve got to tell stories that reach a wide audience.”

Walden, probably the most successful player in this arena with “Narnia” and “Bridge to Terabithia,” has certainly stressed entertainment, backing it up with more ambitious budgets through partnerships with Disney and other studios.

And though Walden doesn’t shy away from religious material (Christ-like Aslan is reborn in “Narnia,” and “Bridge” deals with whether a young girl will be accepted into heaven), the company is reluctant to frame its products as “faith-based.”

“It’s not that we have any specific religious, philosophical or political bent; we’re just trying to create relevant family entertainment, relevant to kids’ lives,” says CEO and co-founder Cary Granat. “We’re trying to build a genuine long-term trust in our brand so the faith community knows when they open up their newspaper and see the Walden name on a film that this is a brand they can trust for no cynicism, good messages, films the whole family can go to.”

Company only makes PG films. It develops only from books, stays true to the underlying material and works closely with schools, libraries and churches. (PG-13 movies, including faith-friendly “Amazing Grace” and forthcoming C.S. Lewis adaptation “The Screwtape Letters,” go to Bristol Bay, not Walden.)

It’s a model few companies can follow, says Granat. “If studio X makes a hard-R horror film and the next week releases a family film, the faith community sniffs that out and says, ‘We’re not going to be marketed to on a one-off basis.'”

Yet Lionsgate is taking exactly that one-off approach. The minimajor manages to mix in the gruesome “Saw” franchise with inspirational Tyler Perry pics and the upcoming film debut of gospel music star Kirk Franklin.

“Our strategy is always to target specific audiences as the core and then cross over, expand from there,” says Lionsgate’s production prexy Mike Paseornek.

The company won’t be in the biblical epic business, says Paseornek, and Lionsgate’s business model keeps budgets down, so it won’t be competing with Disney for the next “Narnia.” However, the studio has targeted the faith community as a core audience it can market to.

MGM plans a similar approach with “Myriam, Mother of the Christ,” by “Passion of the Christ” scripter Benedict Fitzgerald. That project puts MGM squarely in the one-off camp, not trying to establish a faith brand.

By contrast, the Weinstein Co. is ramping up a still-unnamed faith initiative — but the very fact that it will be named tips that Harvey and Bob Weinstein want to build credibility for a brand and avoid the heat from Christian groups that their Miramax label encountered over such films as “Priest” and “Dogma.”

In December, TWC signed a first-look deal with Christian production company Impact Entertainment. The first two projects announced under the deal come with instant cred among Christians: “The Penny,” a memoir by Joyce Meyer and Deborah Bedford; and period tale “The Christmas Candle,” by preacher Max Lucado.

Shannon McIntosh, exec VP of production & post-production for TWC, says the label is looking at a wide range of source material, including Bible stories, as potential projects.

Some of the search for the next big faith hit comes down to money. Most movies that garner megabucks at the box office start with substantial studio backing and big budgets for both production and promotion.

“Studios are not to the point where they’re going to make $40 million Christian films because the market hasn’t been proven to them yet,” Bock says. “That’s fine. They’re making ‘Godsploitation’ films right now, but it’s inevitable that studios will be making big huge Christian films.”

Arguarbly that day has already come with “The Da Vinci Code,” which boasted a top star and director and a budget to match.

It’s entirely possible that the next “faith” hit may be a polished, expensive film, like Walden’s “Narnia,” that isn’t seen by its makers as particularly religious, even if its spiritual themes are apparent to the audience.

A prime candidate: “Evan Almighty,” from Universal and helmer Tom Shadyac. A contemporary take on the Noah story, the pic serves as a sequel to the ribald but ultimately reverent “if I were God” comedy “Bruce Almighty” (which grossed $480 million internationally).

“Faith-based film,” says U marketing prexy Adam Fogelson, “is one of 10 or 50 proper definitions of this movie,” but the story reflects Shadyac’s own values rather than a calculated attempt to target a niche market.

Fogelson says the studio has been talking to religious leaders and pastors for some time. “One of the things we have heard over and over again is that it would be nice if giant mainstream Hollywood films would start to reflect the habits, the morals, of a large part of this country that are devotees of some form of religion or any sort of spirituality,” he says.

The result is an almost ideal Hollywood combination: a wholesome family film with a hot star, Steve Carell, paired with a faith-friendly (Catch the Right!) environmental message (Catch the Left!).

“Tom is a person of faith; he on his own constructed this film to be a giant mainstream comedy that reflects the morals of a large group of Americans,” says Fogelson.”It’s a wonderful thing that it’s naturally part of the story.”

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