In what was supposed to be the year of the “faith-based film,” after a few moderate successes like “Son of God” and “Heaven Is For Real,” we have now seen a dozen box-office duds. On Dec. 12 there’ll be another attempt, a film about Moses called “Exodus: Gods & Kings.”
Efforts to reach the allegedly unpredictable traditionalist filmgoer began in earnest a decade ago when Variety and the Los Angeles Times predicted a $15 million-$30 million opening for “The Passion of the Christ” and it ended up raking in $125 million over its five-day debut. That opening was the movie biz equivalent of a 13-year-old boy arriving barefoot at Yankee Stadium with his homemade bat and hitting 400 home runs, leaving only two possible conclusions: a) He was an anomaly or b) there was a different way to bat baseballs.
Having been a part of that film and other similarly situated movies, and having written a behind-the-scenes account of the Narnia film (“The Lion, the Professor and the Movies”), I noticed many executives trying to make sense of these millions of unaccounted-for moviegoers. My colleague, “X-Men” producer Ralph Winter, and I wrote about what we were seeing the week before “The Passion’s” release. We underestimated the tsunami, predicting north of $70 million — we just didn’t realize how far north.
While nearly everyone in Hollywood settled on the notion that it was a fluke, some attempted a redo, beginning with the tedious “The Nativity” and “The Gospel of John,” both flops. Most recently “The Identical” experienced the third-worst opening in history on 2,000 screens.
Like a soufflé that collapses if just one thing goes wrong, so these types of movies fail when key ingredients are missed. As those behind “Exodus” could soon learn, two of these key ingredients are the release date and not talking down the religious elements of your film, two of several lessons that “Narnia’s” Aslan the Lion, if he could speak, might share.
First, the social life of a typical churchgoer is busiest in the time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with all manner of church-related social events — a schedule that didn’t bode well for the “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which was released on Dec. 9, 2005, resulting in opening weekend numbers that were way off those of “The Passion of the Christ.” It then fell to No. 2 in its second and third weeks only to reclaim the top spot just after Christmas. The studio’s refusal to allow the film to be shown in its entirety to key leaders months before its release and an unusually clumsy marketing effort by four key figures associated with the film, who practically begged traditionalists to stay home by making condescending comments, somewhat limited the film’s reach.
From Elvis, the unnamed star of “The Identical,” comes this: if you hire actors who have heretofore been very outspoken on cultural issues in a particularly obnoxious way to the audience you’re attempting to reach, get ready for these filmgoers to notice and stay home.
From “Noah” comes this lesson: If you’re an auteur director looking to make an alternative version of a Bible story that fundamentally deviates from the Book, your audience may be limited. Traditionalists don’t take kindly to seeing one of their favorite stories being fundamentally altered any more than African-Americans or the gay community would want the stories of Jackie Robinson or Harvey Milk substantively changed with novel interpretations.
From Jesus and his flawed servant Mel Gibson come this: Listen to the audience without sacrificing your artistic integrity. At the urging of a prominent Protestant leader, Gibson added a resurrection scene, and in response to another, rust to the impossibly shiny nails used in the crucifixion. Make sure that stories about the film circulate early and often in order to reach the average American on a sustained basis for at least a year leading up to the film’s release, as Gibson did when he went on “The O’Reilly Factor” 13 months before its release.
If Lincoln could speak, he’d likely marvel at Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in Steven Spielberg’s film but also ask why no one associated with a movie about the first Republican president showed up in conservative media to urge residents of Red States to watch the film in spite of their political differences. As if ignoring media consumed by half of the country wasn’t bad enough, the four principals actually went out of their way to insult the audience of natural Lincoln fans, who noticed and stayed away.
Finally, from another Moses, comes this bit of wisdom: Faced with a group of journalists criticizing his refusal to deviate from the Bible, an exasperated “Prince of Egypt” creator Jeffrey Katzenberg pointed to the ceiling and said, “It’s HIS story!”
As for Moses version 2014, so far, in addition to a Narnia-like December 12 release date, there’s been this from Christian Bale who, apparently unaware of Hitler, Genghis Khan or Saddam Hussein, described his character, revered as a prophet by all three major religions, as “likely schizophrenic and…one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.”
The open questions remains whether Hollywood has the will to change the way we do business in order to reach tens of millions of potential filmgoers whose lifestyles and interests may not be understood, but whose dollars are as green as everybody else’s.
Mark Joseph is a producer and marketing executive who has also worked on the development and/or marketing of films including “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Ray,” “Holes,” “Son of God” and “The Passion of the Christ.”