Film will be released next spring

Lionsgate has acquired domestic distribution rights to an untitled documentary about religion directed by Larry Charles and featuring Bill Maher. The film will be distributed next spring.

In his first project since helming the sleeper hit mockumentary “Borat” for Fox, Charles followed Maher all over the world as the irreverent host of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” interviewed people about God and religion.

Jonah West and Palmer West (“A Scanner Darkly”) produced through their Thousand Words banner.

Tom Ortenberg, Lionsgate prexy of theatrical films, said he and his execs sparked to the film at Cannes when they watched what Charles called “a sizzle reel” of scenes.

“The idea of working with Larry and Bill on a project that is exciting, fun and a little controversial made us salivate, and we were unrelenting,” Ortenberg said.

Even though religion is the flashpoint for wars, terrorism and much global tension, Charles said he and Maher were determined to find a way to make the subject funny. They filmed in Israel and other Middle East hot spots in shoots that made the guerilla-style production of “Borat” seem like a cakewalk.

“Being in a place like Israel, you can feel how violence exists just under the surface of mundane life,” Charles told Daily Variety. “The trick here is, the darker and more serious the subject, the more absurd and funny it is when you push and the humor reveals itself.”

Maher said: “Comedically, the topic of religion is hitting the side of a barn; it’s literally hard to miss. This movie will make you laugh so hard you’ll pray for it to stop.”

Ortenberg said Lionsgate expects the film to break into wide release for a documentary, from several hundred to perhaps 1,000 screens.

Charles, who is now working with Maher to cut several hundred hours of footage down to feature length, cautioned about underestimating the commercial potential in the subject matter.

“Nietzsche said God is dead, but he didn’t see the grosses for ‘Passion of the Christ,’ ” Charles said.

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