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A Letter to Mark Burnett: Faith-Based Films Vs. Culture Wars

Memo to: Mark Burnett

Apparently you are not content just to be television’s most prolific producer, Mark, so you have now committed yourself to a new career as a film producer — one with a specific mission. You want Hollywood to give God a comeback.

To this end, you’ve mobilized tens of millions of dollars to turn a string of outtakes and re-edited footage into a motion picture, “Son of God,” which opened to $25.6 million on 3,254 screens last week (of course, you and your allies pre-bought many of the tickets).

The film is not really new; much of the footage came from your 2013 TV miniseries, “The Bible,” with some new scenes added. While its box office numbers have made you an instant folk hero in the evangelical Christian community, you might also note that the picture is opening in the middle of a culture war that will impact the fortunes of several spiritual epics due to be released.

The problem, Mark, is that when you encourage pastors, among others, to buy out multiplexes for “Son of God” in their communities, some would accuse you of a form of spiritual bullying.

Here are some big picture realities to ponder, Mark: Battles pitting faith-based voters against same sex marriage and the legalization of pot are heating up across Middle America. Many states are weighing legislation permitting businesses to refuse to serve presumably gay customers on “religious grounds.” So while you may take pride in “evangelizing” your film’s message, as you put it, you should also be aware that you are politicizing the Mark Burnett brand.

Tensions between the religious and secular communities are stirring problems for “Noah,” a $125 million Old Testament epic set to open March 28. Reactions to initial screenings have reminded marketers that conservative filmgoers often are disturbed by Hollywood’s depiction of biblical plots and themes. (Footage from “Exodus,” a planned December release starring Christian Bale as Moses, has not yet screened.)

Indeed, your own biblical interpretations, Mark, have been challenged in some circles. “Taking Jesus into your life these days has become another form of instant gratification, one that avoids acknowledgement of denominational conflicts,” says producer John Heyman, whose Bible-informed television specials recently earned him a visionary award from the faith-based Movieguide organization.

To be sure, religious films have performed well in the past: Mel Gibson’s 2004 “Passion of the Christ” took in $612 million globally. And Hollywood successfully played to the faithful back in the ’40s with films like “The Song of Bernadette” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” and in the ’50s with “The Ten Commandments.”

But given the potential for controversy, will religious films today still soar? Backers seem to be worried enough to try to rate the game. When Movieguide proclaimed two weeks ago that movies with conservative spiritual values outperformed those displaying “liberal or leftist” content by a margin of 4 to l, these conclusions were heralded on Fox News. Of course, Movieguide’s labels were murky: “Iron Man 3,” “Man of Steel” and “Lone Survivor” were identified as “conservative,” while “The Wolverine,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Blue Is the Warmest Color” were cited as “leftist-liberal.”

Ted Baehr, founder of Movieguide and of the Christian Film and Television Commission, explained these results by pointing out that the vast majority of the world’s 7 billion people were religious by nature. But even if that’s true, does that necessarily make them prospective filmgoers?

You and your financial supporters, Mark, are banking that you will reach a wide audience that embraces your spiritual message. You might be right, but you might also be surprised by the pushback from those who feel that elements of the faith-based community, in advancing their cause, seem insensitive to the priorities of dissenters.

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