“The Greatest Story Ever Told,” is not the greatest movie ever made, but the 1965 epic about the life of Christ at least understood the nature of its source material. The Bible, Old and New Testaments alike, was a rich vein of subject matter – and profits – for the movie industry.
Then in the late 1960s, Hollywood made it’s hard left turn and God and the Bible were all but forgotten in Tinsel Town.
But this year, the movie industry seems to have rediscovered the Bible as a very marketable/lucrative subject. Three major movies will be released based on Biblical narrative, with another five faith-themed movies also coming to theatres in 2014. Four more Bible-themed movies are in the works for 2015.
According to Gallup, half of Americans identify as “Christian” or “Protestant” with another 24% identifying as “Catholic .” Maybe Hollywood has finally realized that it pays to pay attention to religious audiences.
Some of these movies, such as Darron Aronofsky’s big budget epic, “Noah,” and the Jesus bio-pic, “Son of God,” based on the popular television series “The Bible,” have been heavily promoted and covered by the media. Others have flown under the radar, like Ridley Scott’s “Exodus” starring Christian Bale, set to be released the end of the year (Dec. 12.). Continues after the video.
Mixed Reactions from Christians and Critics
But despite Hollywood’s faith in these movies’ money-making potential, some media critics couldn’t help making jabs at the films, simply because of their theme.
On Feb. 18, CNN Newsroom asked entertainment columnist Michael Musto of the gay website, Out.com for his thoughts on these movies. Musto sneered: “The country is changing [but] some people are still clinging to religion will like these films.”
Haters will hate, but the rise in Bible-based movies has excited Christian audiences. One movie in particular, Son of God, received overwhelming support from both Protestant and Catholic Christians alike. Megachurch pastors across the country have bought out theatres in advance  to show to their churches. The list includes Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, to Joel Osteen of LakeWood Church in Houston to Archbishop Jose Gomez, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, along with many other religious leaders. Combined, these churches have over $100,000 in attendance each week, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has over 4 million members.
Conversely, one film on the list, has received it’s share of criticism from it’s market audience, according to Variety . Christian movie-goers complained that Russell Crowe’s “Noah” depicted him as a religious nut, and the movie contained modern-day messages about environmentalism.
Brian Godawa, a Christian movie screenwriter who reviewed Aronofsky’s script, told The Christian Post : "If you were expecting a Biblically faithful retelling of the story of the greatest mariner in history and a tale of redemption and obedience to God you'll be sorely disappointed." Godawa further criticized the environmental message in the movie, saying the film was, "in short, an anachronistic doomsday scenario of ancient global warming. How Neolithic man was able to cause such anthropogenic catastrophic climate change without the 'evil' carbon emissions of modern industrial revolution is not explained."
The film’s star, Russell Crowe, had his own Biblical analysis, which was featured on Good Morning America, Dec.27: “They consider "Noah" to be a benevolent figure. I'm like, are you kidding me? This is a dude that stood by and watched the entire population of the planet perish. So I think people are going to be quite surprised what "Noah" actually really means.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that films stray from strict interpretations, according to Ted Baehr, Editor-in-Chief of Movieguide, the conservative Christian film review site. “People of different opinions” will make a movie according to their perspective, Baehr said. "Even [1961 life of Christ film] ‘King of Kings’ had a 10-minute beginning with an orgy scene.”
Interestingly, Paramount Pictures, the studio that released “Noah,” has pushed back on the polls that showed Christian audiences didn’t like the film . Paramount Pictures attacked the poll and Variety for promoting the poll, saying the poll doesn’t specifically mention “Noah.” Yet Faith Driven Consumer, the poll organizer, defended its survey, saying the poll clearly asks about that film . Maybe Paramount is so upset because the film studio tried it’s hardest to appeal to Christian audiences, testing several different cuts of the film before audiences to get the most approval from religious audiences.
It would behoove Hollywood to pay more attention to Christian audiences. According to Movie Guide, 9 out of 10 of the highest grossing movies of 2013 contained “strong, or very strong Christian, Biblical or moral worldviews”  and “no explicit sexual nudity, no Anti-American or anti-patriotic content.”
Faith Films Hitting Mainstream
Besides Biblical epics, films with a Christian message will also be shown in theatres this year. Last year, former Disney star Vanessa Hudgens was praised for her role in what some considered a pro-life, pro-adoption movie , “Gimme Shelter.” This year, movies about Christian persecution and spiritual experiences will be in theatres.
The first film, to be released March 21, called “God’s not dead,”  is about a Christian college student (Shane Harper, “Good Luck Charlie,”) who is called to defend his belief in God by his atheist philosophy professor (Kevin Sorbo “Hercules.”) The movie also stars Dean Cain (“Lois and Clark,”) and Willie and Korie Robertson of A&E’s popular television show, “Duck Dynasty.” Continued after the video.
A New York Times bestseller, “Heaven is for Real,”  a non-fiction narrative of a young boy who biologically dies and comes back to life, will come to theatres on Easter.
Two films about religious persecution are also opening in 2014. “Persecuted,”  featuring Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, stars James Remar (“Dexter”) as a popular evangelist who is targeted by the government, for not adhering to a new law that requires religious leaders to be inclusive of all religions in their preaching. According to The Christian Post and the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) the fictional law is similar to a real life resolution passed by the United Nations . The film is set to come out in the Spring.
Another film with the same title, (but with a much smaller budget), is in production this year as well. “Persecuted”  is about a KGB officer who is ordered to infiltrate the Christian church in Soviet era Russia but falls in love with a Christian girl along the way.
The best-selling Christian fiction series, “Left Behind,” will be getting a reboot starring Nicolas Cage and Chad Michael Murray .
More Films in 2015
Other films potentially coming out next year include the Will Smith directed, “Redemption of Cain,” “Pontius Pilate,” with Brad Pitt , Moses re-telling “Gods and Kings,” with rumored director Ang Lee; and a film on the Virgin Mary, called “Mary, mother of God.”
It seems like a spigot has opened, from which you could conclude that there has been institutional hostility toward Bible- and faith-based projects. But Ted Baehr isn’t so sure. Asked if a stigma attached to writers, directors and actors involved in Christian movies, he said, “I don’t think so. At the Producers Guild, Mark Burnett [“The Bible” and “Son of God”] was named the #1 producer on television"
And while he acknowledged there are sometimes special hurdles for Christian films to be produced and distributed, Baehr believes “It depends who it is. Fox/Lionsgate/Sony has a division for Christian films, Roadside Attractions,” which is a distributor. “Studios are complex,” Baehr said. “It depends on who is in the right position. It really depends on who you know. Hollywood is all about relationships.”
And right now, Tinsel Town seems intent on building a relationship with Christian audiences.
— Kristine Marsh is Staff Writer for MRC Culture at the Media Research Center. Follow Kristine Marsh on Twitter.