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Industry Pros Talk Script, Story and ‘Virtue-tainment’ at Variety Purpose Summit

As inspirational features such as “Heaven Is for Real” and top-rated television efforts like History channel’s “The Bible” and NBC’s “A.D.: The Bible Continues” grow even more popular, it has become clear to the industry that faith-based programming has eclipsed the “niche” rubric and become an engine for both quality storytelling and significant viewership.

For many in the faith-based industry, including executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the future of programming hinges on producers’ ability to deliver content that is both authentic to the beliefs of viewers and entertaining.

“If you’re making something called ‘The Bible,’ for American television, the biggest audience on Earth, you’d better get it right,” says Burnett who, along with Downey, are keynote speakers at this year’s Purpose Summit. “There is a large audience for faith-based material, and they can spot in a second if you aren’t being authentic.”

“It’s being truthful to the text and keeping out negative commentary that seems disrespectful to people of faith,” Downey adds.

At the same time, says Maura Dunbar, exec VP and chief content officer of Odyssey Networks — which produces faith-based entertainment — successful product just can’t be “a tool (for) the ministry to galvanize audiences with specific teaching opportunities that can then be relayed into classrooms and so forth.”

Downey, a speaker on the Redemptive TV on the Rise panel at the Purpose Summit, concurs. “We have loved this journey to breathe life into these stories, and I think they’ve been well acted and well written, and not just Sunday school material,” she says.

Maintaining that axis of authenticity and quality storytelling has yielded impressive results. “The Bible” was seen by 100 million cumulative viewers and is the biggest selling TV title on DVD in the past five years, while Sony’s “Heaven Is for Real,” made for $12 million, generated $101 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

“The bar has been raised for entertainment in 2015,” says Purpose Summit keynote speaker Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures, who was instrumental in bringing Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” to theaters. “As the marketplace for faith-based content gets bigger, you attract talented people who have not been (previously) involved in (it). The potential to generate substantial revenue from this material attracts a bigger pool of people, which generates more ideas. And from those ideas, you get better and more successful entertainment offerings.”

Stronger faith-based content may even reach a more diversified demographic of viewers.

“Hollywood needs to look at the significant impact millennials have on programming,” adds Dunbar. “They are a movement that is less concerned with quoting Bible verses than living out their faith in the context of an authentic experience in a community with others. “Ultimately, I would say that we make ‘virtue-tainment,’ stories that relate back to virtue or values, which go all the way back to Aristotle and Plato. That’s where the millennials are going.”

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