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Hollywood Looks for Higher Ground in Film and TV

Faith, religion, existential and eschatological issues are popping up everywhere in Hollywood from Fox’s new panel talk show, “The Preachers” to films such as “Heaven Is for Real” and “Miracles From Heaven.”

“It’s a fascinating conversation you almost never see on television,” says Tara Montgomery, creative executive and vice president: programming, production & development at OWN, which recently premiered “Greenleaf,” a drama about an African-American megachurch in Memphis. “Oprah [Winfrey] wasn’t afraid to go there.”

In fact, there are a growing number of players who are trying to portray faith more positively in film and television, be it Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Many of these industry insiders, such as producer Steve Wegner (“Joyful Noise,” “The Blind Side”), will take the floor at Variety’s annual Purpose: Family Entertainment and Faith-Based Summit on July 29 at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills.

“I’m drawn to films that portray spirituality in a positive light,” Wegner says. “Strangely, drama is almost a bad word in Hollywood and the faith moniker is actually giving drama a way to succeed. I try to make films that are on the surface universal. It’s a pessimistic world, so anything that shows humanity at its best is embraced.”

And while the faith-seeking audience has always been there, says Matthew Faraci, founder and president of Inspire Buzz, an entertainment marketing agency, it’s also “the most underserved audience in the U.S. entertainment market.”

“[When people hear] faith-based, they think Bible,” he says. “I think it’s a much larger audience. The ‘values’ audience is very diverse: it’s black and white and Asian and Latino and they’re actively seeking positive, affirming choices that have value.”

Faraci views biblical-themed content, such as “Noah,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and Timur Bekmambetov’s upcoming “Ben-Hur” as a sub-genre of the values market, which could cover everything including “The Dropbox,” a 2015 Korean documentary about a pastor who rescues abandoned babies.

But Hollywood is “confused” about how to portray faith and what audience they want to capture, says Reza Aslan, co-founder of BoomGen Studios, producer of “Of Kings and Prophets,” and HBO’s post-apocalyptic mystery, “The Leftovers.”

Many films geared toward an evangelical audience are “of extremely poor quality,” he says. “So what we’re starting to see now, particularly with projects like ‘The Leftovers,’ is an attempt to portray faith in its complexity, to portray it as a part of the kind of existential angst that all people feel when confronted with the realities of the larger world.”

Aslan, author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” notes that while 71% of Americans self-identify as Christian, the real trend is the rise of the “non-affiliated, people who have an active spiritual life, but don’t want to be associated with major organized religious tradition.”

“Most often Hollywood creates one-dimensional expressions of faith,” Aslan says. “They’re either perfectly good or they’re perfectly bad, and there’s very little attempt to get at the nuance of people of faith.”

But it’s harder to get at that nuance when your faith is often portrayed negatively in the news.

“There is a lot of misunderstanding about Islam,” says Suhad “Sue” Obeidi, director of operations at the Muslim Public Affairs Council and director of its Hollywood Bureau. “Our main goal is to change the content in the industry to give an accurate portrayal. We believe that no one can change the narrative about Islam and Muslims but us.”

Some have tried to change the narrative, as Aasif Mandvi did with his web comedy “Halal in the Family,” or the Canadian-produced “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” which is now streaming on Hulu. But neither portrays serious discussions of Islam.

“I think the strongest choices are informed when the writers, creators and directors are shaping those narratives,” says “The Daily Show”’s Hasan Minhaj, who is taking his Off Broadway one-man show “Homecoming King” on tour. The play, which he calls a “brown John Hughes movie,” centers around a kid whose Muslim family is from India. “I realized if I don’t tell a specific story it’s going to be told for me.”

Jill Soloway’s Emmy-winning “Transparent” has been lauded by the Jewish community for its portrayal of a specific type of eastside Los Angeles Judaism.

“If you want to talk about spirituality, then we have to think about meaning, feelings, relationships,” says Joan Scheckel, consulting producer on “Transparent.” “That’s what I did with Jill [Soloway] and [how we] got the Judaism in there. She really wanted to get into community and love.”

Per Scheckel, it’s the spiritual side of life that TV audiences are really craving.

“The vast majority of shows have these characters who seem to be wholly motivated by material concerns. They seem to have no spiritual interiority. That’s simply not reflective of the vast majority of viewers.”

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