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Hollywood Finds Religion

New Movies Reach Out to Christian Audiences

HOLLYWOOD, California, NOV. 7, 2005 (Zenit) - Hollywood has found a new audience: Christians. Dec. 9 will see the premiere of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," based on the C.S. Lewis book of the same title.

The market for religious-oriented media always existed. But the success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" made a lot of people in Hollywood sit up and take note of the commercial opportunities they had been disdaining.

Plans to make a film, or a series of films, based on the Narnia series had languished in Hollywood for over a decade, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper reported Sept. 8. Disney gave the green light to the project one week after "The Passion" opened in February 2004.

This past September saw the opening of a film that has been favorably received by some Christian groups, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose." It too was approved that same week after the premiere of "The Passion," noted the Globe and Mail. The film is directed by Scott Derrickson, a well-known practicing Christian.

Derrickson contended that religion or spirituality has been largely ignored by the media. He said he wanted to make a film about some essential questions, such as the existence of a spiritual realm, God and the devil.

The effort has had commercial success. According to the Web site Box Office Mojo, as of Oct. 30 "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" had pulled in $74.8 million in ticket sales within the United States, and another $6.1 million overseas. The film's production costs were estimated at $19 million.

The Narnia films are a much costlier project. Newsweek in its Nov. 7 issue estimated the upcoming film to cost around $150 million, co-financed by Disney and Walden Media. At least one other estimate puts the price tag at $200 million. If the film is a financial success, the seven-book series will be set to continue its Hollywood run.

Walden Media, owned by Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, has already laid out a 15-year plan to create a franchise out of "The Chronicles of Narnia," according to Business Week magazine in its Nov. 7 issue. Disney, whose movie unit lost $300 million last summer, has hired Motive Marketing, the firm that helped turn "The Passion of the Christ" into a hit, to hold screenings of "Narnia" at churches. Disney has also made deals with large companies to cover the promotional costs.

Christian marketing

Disney played up the Christian angle in a recent film, "The Greatest Game Ever Played," released Sept. 30. Interestingly, Disney marketed it to faith-based groups even though the film, based on Francis Ouimet's win in the 1913 U.S. Open, is not overtly religious, the Associated Press reported Sept. 22.

"Its themes are about family, about not giving up on your dreams, courage," said Dennis Rice, head of publicity at Walt Disney Studios. "They are very secular virtues, but they also could potentially be Christian virtues."

Targeted marketing of this kind happens only if a studio expects to add $25 million to $50 million to the box office gross and to sell perhaps an extra 5 million DVDs, according to the Associated Press article. For their part, churches have recognized that denouncing violent or sexually explicit films has a limited effect, the article said. Churches now are concentrating on directing their members to use their buying power to support films that reflect their values.

Another recent example was the family comedy "The Things About My Folks." Members of churches, synagogues and Jewish community centers were invited to more than 30 screenings in cities around the United States.

And 20th Century Fox, which distributed the video of "The Passion," recently launched a Web site to target Christian and family-based films directly to a religious audience. The site includes a "church resources" link, which lists several movies and includes written guidance suggesting Bible verses to discuss in conjunction with scenes from the films.

The Left Behind series of novels, based on apocalyptic themes and the second coming of Jesus, are also in the process of being made into films. The third movie in the series, "World at War," opened Oct. 21. Of the 3,200 screens it was scheduled to open on, none were at commercial theaters, the Washington Post reported that same day. The two previous films have not been a commercial success so this time Sony Pictures Entertainment turned to the churches.

The growth in "megachurches" makes such a move possible, said the Post. Many of these churches, which usually belong to evangelical groups, boast professional-quality sound systems and large-screen projection systems, as well as bookstores or gift shops.

Television as well

Television stations are also tuning in to the Christian market. Not one but two American networks, ABC and CBS, had the same idea of producing a miniseries about Pope John Paul II, the New York Times reported Sept. 28.

This has given rise to what Variety.com on Nov. 1 called the "Network Papal Wars." ABC has scheduled its two-hour "Have No Fear: The Life of John Paul II" on Dec. 1. This is three days before CBS' four-hour "Pope John Paul II," due to run Dec. 4 and 7. The CBS version reportedly will be previewed Nov. 17 by none other than Benedict XVI.

In Italy, meanwhile, the government-owned RAI 1 television station showed a two-part series on St. Peter. The film, broadcast Oct. 24-25, was produced by the company Lux Vide, which is also involved with the CBS series on John Paul II. The dramatized version of St. Peter's life was shown in a special preview to the bishops gathered in Rome for the recent synod, the Catholic daily Avvenire reported Oct. 20. The film received favorable comments from a number of the prelates who saw it.

A less favorable reaction came from some extremist Muslim groups. Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, who played the part of St. Peter, was born a Christian but converted to Islam in the 1950s. A Web forum reportedly used by al-Qaida in the past carried a death threat against Sharif due to his part in the film, according to a report Monday in the British Guardian newspaper.

Sharif, 73, had been quoted as saying: "Playing Peter was so important for me that even now I can only speak about it with difficulty. It will be difficult for me to play other roles from now on."

Epic poem

Whether mainstream media will continue their opening to Christian audiences will depend, in part, on the commercial success of the films and programs coming out in the near future. But more films are already being planned.

20th Century Fox, for instance, has announced a movie based on John Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost," the Guardian reported Oct. 26. Its producer, Vincent Newman, has pledged to keep the script faithful to the original 1667 text.

Making a film of "what is arguably the greatest epic poem in English literature is a tall order," commented the Guardian. But the story of Satan's rebellion and expulsion from heaven, and his subsequent role in the fall of man, will likely provide plenty of dramatic material for a movie.

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