If 2013 goes down in history as the best year of movies since 1993, 2014 will go down as the year of the biblical film. Son of God, God's Not Dead, and this weekend's Noah are just three of the almost fifteen faith-based movies set to release in theaters this year in the U.S.
Despite this being a great time for Christian moviegoers and studios (who know Christian audiences are willing to spend a lot of dough), the sudden surge in biblical entertainment isn't without its controversy. Why? It's a simple battle between quality and tradition.
When 2004's The Passion of the Christ was released, the film became the highest grossing R-rated film ever released in North America. The passion project of director Mel Gibson, Passion's success can partially be credited to the huge grassroots campaign marketers used to get any and every church leader behind this cinematic story of Jesus, despite its amount of graphic violence that most Christians would stereotypically grimace towards. The fact that the film is entirely in Arabic and Latin, with subtitles, is even more of a testament to the following the film was able to gain as people poured in to movie houses. Not your typical turnout for subtitled films. It went on to earn over $100 million in the U.S. alone. Churches flocked to see and support to story of Jesus. And critics agreed. The film received great reviews. The film was made with quality. Some have stated that the violence may have been a little superfluous, and there's also the controversy crying anti-Semitism, but overall the film earned its two thumbs up, plus a nice pay day, and three Oscar nominations, to boot.
Even before Gibson's Hollywood project, the modern Christian movie market had already seen a small flourish thanks to the likes of Kirk Cameron and the Left Behind films. There were also minor hits like the Liam Neeson-starrer The Omega Code, plus the huge VeggieTales home video series (which has also spawned two big screen projects).
Christian entertainment is a booming market, but because of that, it's quickly becoming its own worst enemy. Anyone who is part of a group will be biased to that group's endeavors, which is why so many entertainment-loving Christians have defended Christian productions over the years, quality or not. Why do you think The Passion of the Christ was such a hit? There is some truth in saying that the story of Jesus is a big draw, obviously, but there's no doubt a small piece of each person that is glad to see an actual "good" movie with a Christian theme, as opposed to a cheesy movie with a "good" moral at the end. It also wasn't too off-putting for the non-Christian moviegoers. They knew better than to expect a down-your-throat charismatic story, instead enjoying a so-called Hollywood film.
Fast forward from Gibson's opus to 2006 when a little football film called Facing the Giants was released. The film was fully funded by a megachurch in Albany, GA and, like Passion, received an impressive grassroots publicity drive aimed at churchgoers. The film's director and star, Alex Kendrick, never shied away from what the film was supposed to be and the end result was a surprising top ten finish at the box office its opening weekend. The difference between Passion and Giants was the mere fact that the former was produced by a big company and directed by one of Hollywood's top stars and the latter lacked star-power or a major studio and was made on a shoestring budget. Both made a nice pay day and Kendrick has gone on to make even bigger church-friendly films like Fireproof (which stars Kirk Cameron).
What made Facing the Giants work? Part of its nice tally came from the Christian moviegoers determined to see a Christian film no matter what. The other part of the group were people who'd heard word-of-mouth about the surprisingly non-cheesy film (well, non-cheesy in the sense of religious films, though it continued plenty of sports flick cheese for an entire cheese plate). People even seemed to appreciate the fact that a church produced a family film that earned a PG rating and focused on real life issues, as opposed to a rose-colored-glasses project better suited for an episode of "7th Heaven." There's no way Facing the Giants would have succeeded without the grassroots campaign, but it's best for the Christian entertainment world that it did. It opened the doors for Christian audiences to accept a different type of Christian cinema. Of course, there were never thoughts of Oscars or complete mainstream success, but it solidified enough to stay out of the Wal-Mart dollar bin of direct-to-DVD classics.
As with any type of fad, Christian filmmaking has become a "thing." And with every "thing" there are pros and cons. The pro is that some Christian filmmakers are trying to incorporate quality into their work, without sacrificing the message. Being an artist means being brave enough to never compromise the heart of your project no matter what. Others are too afraid to introduce quality for fear of losing their audience. There are studios and filmmakers banking on the fact that Christian audiences have been known to flock to any and all Christian themed films, without any regard to quality. What's better than making a ridiculous amount of money? Making a ridiculous amount of money without really having to spend any. This is where we find ourselves today.
Last year, the History channel released the epic miniseries "The Bible." It was a huge hit. Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the power couple behind the project, took the miniseries and created the film Son of God, using pretty much all of the already-seen Jesus footage from the miniseries. Son of God was released to theaters and made a pretty penny, earning over $20 million its opening weekend alone. Before it was even released, though, Burnett and Downey took the Passion approach and grassroot-ed their way to every megachurch they could. They gained support from church leaders and really got the message out there that this film was an event that had to be seen. Churches bought out theaters for screenings. Churchgoers were hooked. But, was it fair? If you watch the standard trailer for the film it doesn't mention that the majority of footage is ripped straight from the miniseries. A huge chunk of the Christian population watched "The Bible" last year, so the majority of them have already seen this. Despite that, the film is very much marketed towards this church group, knowing they will monetarily support anything they feel is justifiably supportive of Jesus and the message. It's possibly a bullying marketing tactic, though. A lot of people had no idea that what they were paying to see was, potentially, a cleverly branded cash grab. There's also argument for the sake of ministry that it's just great that movies like Son of God are being made and the message is getting out there. But, how many people are absent-mindedly going to see Son of God? The title alone suggests exactly what to expect. That would almost be the same as expecting a non-believer to accidentally walk into a church on a Sunday morning.
Flip now to this weekend. Darren Aronofsky, director of dark hits like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, releases his most-epic film to date, the story of Noah. From the onset it's important to note that the gigantic budget and "secular" filmmaker make this an event film for anyone, especially Christians. It's been ten years since a big Hollywood studio has backed a religious-themed film. The Christian audience should be drooling. Instead, there's a whole list of controversies surrounding the film. And a lot of the controversy is coming from people who haven't even seen the movie yet!
Aronofsky has done good to combat this with simple answers to difficult questions. Many audience-goers at preview screenings were confused by the story's angle and by some of the things Noah thought or said, not remembering these things from the Bible. It's true. Noah doesn't actually say anything in the Bible at all during the actual story of the ark. It'd be interesting to see a film where your protagonist is completely silent. The Noah story is also very short. And it usually comes drenched in Sunday School songs and coloring pictures of rainbows and happy animals walking two by two. However, the true story of Noah is a dark and heartbreaking one that ends with a glorious revelation of grace, plus a night of drunkenness and immorality.
Pre-flood, the world had become a twisted place thanks to fallen angels and man's search for perfection. There's a lot of theological discussions to be had regarding the purpose of God's destruction. While Aronofsky no doubt enjoys artistic liberties in telling his epic story, is that really something about which to complain? Each and every biblical story has a purpose, and I'm not just talking about the analogies you can gather from each story. How can this story relate to my struggles today? The answer has usually something to do with redemption, salvation, favor, and grace. Which is a good thing. Aronofsky has pointed out that while he has taken the liberty to make an entertaining film, plus he uses aspects from more than just the Christian tradition of the story, he has not abandoned the themes of the story at all. He's made the story more human, as opposed to completely spiritual.
Many Christians are blind to the fact that most film-goers are not interested in a purely Christian film. Even Christians aren't convinced to only spend their money on Christian entertainment. It's recognized as a good message, but if it comes to quality, the bigger budget will generally perform better. And, as far as ministry, what if the bigger budget is actually the better witnessing tool? It'd be hard to find a "sinner" out there who was convinced to go see Son of God based on the trailers alone. Christians are convinced that if they spend money, that means the message is getting out there. God didn't call us to spend our money on frivolous things, He called us to love people. If movies are your witnessing tool, you'd be a lot more successful getting a non-saved person out to see something like Bruce Almighty, a Jim Carrey movie with plenty of sacrilegious moments, but a very powerful message. Or, go ever further and find the redemptive and grace-filled messages in films like The Matrix or Magnolia to fill your after-movie conversation with your friends.
Even beyond just the ministry aspect of films, what if Hollywood saw that the "Christian crowd" was willing to enjoy a film based on a biblical story. A big budgeted film based on a Christian story. Yes, there are artistic liberties taken, but part of that is because Hollywood isn't quite ready to spend that kind of money just yet. Allow these biblical stories to become pop culture necessities and filmmakers who want to focus on a more biblical approach may be more willing to fight for the funds needed to pull it off.
So, Christians, as one of you, I beg you to stop supporting crappy Christian entertainment just because it's marketed as Christian. Let's all admit, a lot of it is crap. It's annoying. Morals in life come from real life. Experience leads to teaching and to learning. Is it too much to ask for real life movies? The Bible surely didn't shy away from some pretty real-life stuff.
And, Hollywood, as an avid fan of yours, I beg you to stop tricking Christians into spending money on crap. You know we are easily influenced with just the right words. We're not all the same, though. And, while you're at it, go ahead and stop with the Nicolas Cage Left Behind movie. It's not going to do well at the box office. So, stop wasting your money.
There will never be a day where the two worlds can completely collide, but it's a nice dream, isn't it?
Until then, enjoy this...