Hollywood Taking Notice of Christian-Themed Movies

Some Producers Aim at an Untapped Market

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LOS ANGELES, OCT. 12, 2001 ((Zenit.org).- When the Apocalypse-themed film «Megiddo: Omega Code 2» opened as scheduled the week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the self-described Christian film gained a national spotlight.

It did so because a number of other movies with violent finales were not released, in the wake of Black Tuesday. So why was «Megiddo» different?

Its producer, Matthew Crouch, had a simple answer. He told The Christian Science Monitor that God «positioned the film to be the answer for a question we didn´t even know would be asked.»

This sequel to «The Omega Code,» the highest-grossing independent film of 1999, had already caught Hollywood´s attention for another reason: money.

The face-off between a Christian American president and his evil brother, who heads a worldwide organization united against the United States, is the latest appeal to what is being touted as a new, undertapped market for Christian-themed entertainment, or «Godsploitation,» according to the Monitor.

While many suggest that more sober times may increase the appeal of all films with serious themes, Christian-themed music, film and books already have begun to earn revenues — some $3 billion in 2000 — that catch the attention of Hollywood executives.

Christian filmmakers such as Crouch say the impact of their work is just beginning to appear.

«My pitch to Hollywood is, ´Hello, there´s an audience here that has rejected you,´» he told the Monitor. «I will show you who they are, and that niche will grow into the largest market segment Hollywood has ever seen.»

Religion and popular culture are hardly strangers. In Hollywood´s early days, Cecil B. DeMille mined the Bible for some of his biggest hits, and the devil never seems to go out of fashion as a villain. The difference today may be found in the motivation of the so-called creative Christians. They have a strong desire to unite their faith with entertainment. But striking the balance between the two has been a challenge.

As the market for religion-driven entertainment expands beyond denominational boundaries into the mainstream, it´s clear that many religious talents are still finding their way when it comes to entertaining the masses.

«It´s a fine line,» says Peter Lalonde, producer of «Left Behind,» last year´s film based on a successful series of books by the same title about the end of time. They provide a specific, but not universal, interpretation of the Christian themes of salvation and the second coming of Jesus.

«We´re hammered for being too evangelical on one side, and then some in the Christian community say we aren´t going far enough,» says Lalonde, who released the film on video before taking it to theaters, using local churches and the Internet to spread the word.

Lalonde says his goal is to reach people through good storytelling.

«Christian filmmaking in the past has been thinly disguised sermons with a message,» says the president of Cloud Ten Pictures. «We have always wanted to be seen as filmmakers who happen to be Christians. But we´re always going to bring our point of view to our films.»

This sense of mission is a common link between members of this growing community.

«There are 100 million people in this country who identify themselves as Christians, and they feel that they´ve been left behind by the studio system,» Lalonde says. «They feel movies aren´t being made for them.»

Barbara Nicolosi, a Catholic, came to Hollywood because she felt that the perspective of a life based on faith was either being slighted or misrepresented in popular entertainment — and not necessarily by outsiders.

«We weren´t being martyred,» says the founder of Act One: Writing for Hollywood, a coalition of Christian writers and producers. «We were doing it to ourselves with schlocky movies that gave a standard reply to problems.»

Act One, now in its second year with a $300,000 budget from the Catholic Church, opened its doors in Los Angeles two years ago. A New York office launched this past month.

«We want art that will not be cynical,» says Nicolosi, the Act One director who points to films such as «October Sky» as an example of good filmmaking. «The problem is when people don´t have God in their framework, the only thing they are sure of is the darkness. They tend to obsess about anger and fear.

«But, when you add God, then hope is stronger, and you can add the darkness, but it will never be stronger» than hope.

Studios have expressed interest in the work of those she teaches, but even so, she says, it´s not easy for anyone in Hollywood to know exactly what audiences will buy.

«We´re trying day by day to figure out what our students need to equip them better,» she says.

While religion has inspired artists for centuries, it has been largely banished from today´s popular entertainment, says Robert Thompson, director of the center for the study of popular television at Syracuse University. This, he says, parallels the rise of mass culture.

«For so long in the mainstream entertainment, there was this idea that you had to appeal to mass audience,» Thompson says. «People were uncomfortable with religious themes. You could talk about anything but religion or politics if you were going after a mass audience because you didn´t want to offend anyone.»

The splintering of the mass market into many cable and satellite channels has opened the door to more targeted entertainment, he says.

«We haven´t seen such raw forms of entertainment in a long time, he says. The reception for Christian music and films from mainstream critics has been largely neutral or negative. But that doesn´t mean they aren´t making an impact.

«These things are a meaningful barometer of the place and manifestation of religion in a kind of dialogue with the rest of culture,» says David Sterritt, a film critic of the Monitor. «I´m not sure if anyone should care about these movies themselves. But they ought to care if those [large] numbers of people are going to see them.»

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