Mark Burnett and Roma Downey Talk ‘Ben Hur,’ ‘Answered Prayers’ and Vladimir Putin Reality Show

Mark Burnett Roma Downey Purpose
Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Variety

Mark Burnett and Roma Downey came to Variety‘s Purpose summit on Thursday with clips of their upcoming epic “Ben Hur” in tow, to the delight of the crowd at the conference dedicated to faith-based and family entertainment.

“Ben Hur,” directed by Timor Bekmambetov, is a big-budget epic set for release in February by Paramount and MGM.

Burnett has produced hundreds of hours of TV during the past 15 years. But working on “Ben Hur” has been “like building a skyscraper” compared to building a house with a TV series, he said. Downey spent a great deal of time on the set in Italy, serving as the “guiding light,” ensuring that the spirit of the story of one man’s persecution and redemption remained intact.

Burnett and Downey screened a 30-second clip of the iconic chariot race scene. Earlier in the day, Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore showed off an extended “Ben Hur” clip that included behind-the-scenes material, which marked the first glimpse that the studio has offered anywhere of the pic.

Moore said that the team brought on the Burnett and Downey to “really help to make sure the telling of Christ’s story in the movie worked well together as a great story.” The movie, for its inspiration, went back to the original book. “Our hope is that it is a new a different journey that people will enjoy,” Moore said.

Currently there are no images online of the film, and no official trailer, so Moore asked that the summit attendees not share any images or video they may have captured.

Paramount’s Rob Moore at Variety’s Purpose summit.

Among other highlights from Burnett and Downey’s wide-ranging session.

  • Mark Burnett is serious about putting Vladimir Putin in a reality show.

“Be honest now, put your hands up if this comes on TV, who’s watching ‘Vladimir Putin’s Russia’?” With a room full of hands, he explains, “That’s huge ratings, I’m just saying.” Word is that Burnett has pitched the Russian leader on starring in a docu-series, but he would not elaborate on whether the project is actually in the works.

  • “The Bible” was a game-changer for project pitches of faith-based TV. 

“Hollywood and New York in terms of the media industry follow the money,” Burnett started. “What (2013’s History miniseries) ‘The Bible’ proved was that there was an underserved market.”

  • Focus is key when executing faith in marketable ventures.

Downey noted that there are no decisions, big or small, that do not include prayer and intention. “The kind of projects that we would be looking for happen to be things that inspire or uplift or elevate,” she said.

  • You have to do your homework when undertaking a faith-based story.

In addition to taking a great idea, executing it well, and making it marketable, Burnett told the room that there is one more critical point that is unique to faith-based content. “It better be authentic and you better not cross any lines,” he added.

Downey agreed: “When you’re dealing with Jesus in a screenplay, it’s not really the time for improvising, “

  • Vetting talent and understanding legalities is critical when producing reality content. 

From “Shark Tank” to their upcoming TLC series “Answered Prayers,” hosted by Downey, the company has to vet the personalities and the stories they decide to put on the scene. “Answered Prayers,” premiering next month, features stories of people who have had life-saving experiences that they chalk up to miracles. The pair reached out to churches around the country to find people with such stories.

“This is the entertainment business,” Burnett explained. “Don’t act like an amateur, get the right advice, get the right help and like in the faith part, it’s all this stuff and you better get the story right and if you don’t know the story itself, you better hire people.”

The couple hired an advisory board of 40 spiritual leaders to produce “The Bible,” and they had nearly as many engaged as consultants on “Ben Hur.” “We brought (some of) the most important faith leaders to Rome onto the set of ‘Ben-Hur,’ ” Burnett said. He noted that many of them took the opportunity to snap photos in the chariots.