Burnett and his wife and co-producer Roma Downey have been making the rounds of faith communities and are working with a Christian marketing firm to promote their take on the greatest story ever told. “Bible” bows March 3 and will air in two-hour segs over five Sundays, culminating on Easter, March 31.
Given the pair’s credentials as devout Christians, “Bible” has enormous potential to draw an impressive crowd and, in particular, reach viewers in the evangelical demo who might not otherwise watch History. And next month’s TV premiere in the U.S. and Canada is just the first stop for “Bible,” which Burnett and Downey, known for her role in CBS’ spiritually themed drama “Touched by an Angel,” financed independently and own outright. (The actress appears in the mini in the role of Jesus’ mother Mary.)
Burnett is riding high at present in his traditional realm of unscripted TV, with “The Voice” reviving NBC’s fortunes, “Survivor” still a pillar for CBS and “Shark Tank” performing well for ABC. But “Bible” has been a passion project like no other.
“I am certain,” Burnett told Variety, “that if you took ‘Survivor,’ ‘The Voice,’ ‘Shark Tank,’ ‘The Apprentice’ and all the other shows I’ve done, over the next 25 years more people will see ‘The Bible’ miniseries than all those other projects combined. It is so important to tell these stories, and I believe we have done it well for a new generation.”
History has also mounted a big national marketing push for “Bible,” complete with a trailer running in theaters and on-air promotion across parent company A+E Networks outlets. History’s campaign emphasizes the drama of the seminal Bible stories selected for the mini, which span the Old and New Testaments, starting with Genesis and ending with Revelations. Episodes will also rerun Mondays on Lifetime in an effort to expose it to a different aud.
But no marketing materials can top the emotional pull of Downey asking churchgoers to “keep this special project in your prayers” in a YouTube video released last week. She’s expressed this sentiment repeatedly as she and Burnett conduct screenings and make appearances on Christian media outlets.
Reaction to the mini has been overwhelming, Burnett assured Variety.
“We’ve been getting massive standing ovations,” he said of recent screenings in Nashville, Washington, D.C., Toronto and other cities. “There’s nothing like being in a stadium with 15,000 people with teardrops falling down their faces.”
In addition to their own tubthumping, Burnett and Downey have plenty of other high-profile evangelists for the miniseries.
In 2011 they assembled a board of more than 40 Biblical scholars and religious leaders to advise on the production. Now those clergymen, including megachurch leaders Paster Joel Osteen (who hosted a screening at his Lakewood Church in Houston last month) and Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, are talking up the mini to their flocks. Others vocal in endorsing the project include Bishop T.D. Jakes, Pastor Charles Jenkins, Tony Robbins, Maya Angelou and reps from orgs such as the National Assn. of Evangelicals, the World Evangelical Assn., Focus on the Family, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and National Religious Broadcasters.
“Mark and Roma have succeeded in doing what few before them have done; they have produced a work that truly reflects the masterpiece that is the Holy Bible,” Osteen said in a statement endorsing the mini.
Burnett and Downey have also written three books to accompany the mini, including novel “The Story of God and Us.” Fox Home Video will release the DVD and Blu-ray edition of “Bible” in April. Hearst Corp., a partner with Burnett in his One Three Media banner, will distribute the mini to international TV outlets. There’s also a plan to assemble a shortened version for theatrical release both in the U.S. and overseas.
Burnett and Downey are working with Christian marketing agency Outreach, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., to offer “Bible”-related merchandise, from small-group viewing party kits — for $9.99, complete with an “I Love the Bible” wristband — to more elaborate ” ‘Bible’ Movie Event Package” kits that come with a one-year DVD site licensing agreements, posters, tickets and other signage for churches that want to hold large-scale viewing events. Prices start at $199, depending on the size of the church.
They are also distribbing sermon guides and classroom materials to 180,000 churches to help further Burnett and Downey’s goal of having “Bible” serve as a teaching tool. The pair are hosting a free webinar via the Outreach website on Tuesday to help church leaders “optimize this opportunity for outreach.”
As the owners of the mini, Burnett and Downey stand to profit handsomely if its built-in appeal to Christian auds yields a huge TV turnout that in turn fuels homevid sales and other aftermarket releases. That scenario buoyed Mel Gibson’s 2004 pic “The Passion of the Christ” and, more recently, 2009 Sandra Bullock starrer “The Blind Side.”
But for Burnett and Downey, shepherding “Bible” to the screen over a five-year period and through a lengthy shoot in Morocco and other locations was nothing less than a calling.
“This has not been just a show for us,” Burnett said. “I’ve made a lot of television. I’ve got nothing to prove. But what I do know is when you make television that has at its core a strong value (system), it always does well. This has more value than anything I’ve ever worked on.”