Jesus Christ Superstar: Why it took so long for Hollywood to get God

Russell Crowe gets down on one knee in the Biblical epic "Noah." Credit: Paramount Pictures
Russell Crowe gets down on one knee in the Biblical epic “Noah.”
Credit: Paramount Pictures

According to a Gallup poll, 78 percent of the United States self-identifies as Christian. And yet Christians are not a group to whom Hollywood specifically caters. For the last 30 years, religious-themed films — even films that address religion in any way, shape or form — have been thin on the ground, at least when it comes to major studios. It’s almost exclusively the purview of small production companies, who shill directly to churches, religious groups and specific parts of the country (read: not cities).

That seems to be changing — sort of. Friday brings “Noah,” a $130 million spectacular starring Russell Crowe as the man, according to Genesis, God chose to save from an oncoming, life-destroying flood. It is a major film from a major studio (Paramount), with name stars (Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman) and made on a scale comparable to the Biblical epics, like “The Ten Commandments,” that dominated screens in the 1950s and ’60s.

It’s not alone. “Noah” is the second Bible film of the year, after “Son of God,” to be distributed by a major studio. (There was also the independently released “God’s Not Dead,” in which a nice Christian college student debates theology with his mean atheist professor, played by Kevin Sorbo.) More are coming.

Hollywood players have described 2014 as the “Year of the Bible Movie.” Sure enough, April brings “Heaven is Real,” with Greg Kinnear, adapted from the non-fiction mega-seller about a three year old who claimed to have had visions of the afterlife during a near-death experience. The old “Left Behind” series, which once starred Kirk Cameron, will get rebooted with no less than Nicolas Cage, who already did this religious apocalypse business with “Knowing.” And winter promises “Exodus,” not another take on Leon Uris’ book on the founding of Israel — filmed by Otto Preminger in 1960 with Paul Newman — but another Moses tale. This one has Christian Bale and is helmed by Ridley Scott. 

Many may wonder why it’s taken Hollywood so long. In 2004 — after a drought that began in the 1970s — the marketplace was stunned by the success of “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson’s passionate and hard R depiction of the crucifixion. It grossed $370 million, plus another $240 in other countries.

Since then there have been a few attempts at kowtowing to the faithful, but little major till now. According to Chris Stone, founder of the online community Faith Driven Consumer — which seeks to develop a dialogue with Hollywood for the faithful — the studios weren’t avoiding the issue.

“I don’t think there was any fear,” Stone says. “I think they lacked the expertise to produce them well. I think they have the same challenges targeting to women and targeting to African Americans and targeting to Hispanic people.”

Stone argues that Christians can’t be treated as one big demographic. Of the 78 percent of American Christians, most say faith informs their lives in “some way,” meaning they may pray, read the Bible or go to church, but with a degree of casualness. Only 15 percent of the U.S. population — about 46 million — are “faith driven,” in that everything they do, including their purchases, is informed by their religion.

If Hollywood has always aimed for mass appeal, things are now more complicated. “They’re facing a marketplace that is much more segmented and is demanding specialty products,” Stone says. Among those segments is the faith driven.

“Hollywood is in the business of providing commercial art, meaning they’re trying to make money,” Stone says. “If you provide a movie for which a community has an affinity, it will support it. Profit is the reward you receive for giving people what they want.”

But audiences are also fickle, and even the faith based haven’t always been there to support films aimed for them. A year and a half after “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” — the first in Christian apologist C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia” series, which feature a Christ-like lion — was a smash. But the two sequels fizzled and the franchise lies dormant. “The Nativity Story,” a sort of “Passion” prequel, sank during the 2006 holidays. (That “Passion” was also highly controversial, with not unearned accusations of anti-Semitism, may have also scared off the studios from chasing dollars.)

But this new push for Hollywood religious cinema seems far more aggressive. What’s happened to Christian movies is similar to what happened to the western in the 1930s. After a handful of bombs, including 1931’s “Cimmaron” (which nonetheless won the Best Picture Oscar), the major studios put a halt on producing them. In their absence, westerns flourished in the low budget, “poverty row” studios. But the majors identified westerns too much with the minors, and didn’t want to get their hands dirty — until a variety of forces led them to change their minds, resulting in a comeback for A-picture westerns in 1939, led by the likes of “Stagecoach,” “Jesse James” and “Union Pacific.”

The shock crossover of tiny, independently produced (and sometimes deeply amateurish) films like “Fireproof” (with born again former TV legend Kirk Cameron) and “Courageous” is no doubt part of what’s caused this renaissance. One could throw in Tyler Perry too. His films never shy away from faith, churches and God talk, as do many films aimed at the African American community.

Thing is, religious movies have never had anything approaching the prominence of the western. They’ve never been a steady genre, at least not in Hollywood. The Golden Age didn’t ignore religion; people pray, they go to church and they’ll drop the appropriate names. But even at their most popular, they tend to be part of other genres. The Biblical epics — “The Robe,” “Ben-Hur,” “King of Kings” — are just part of the grand epic genre, which covered anything suitably outsized: the Bible, Rome, wars, musicals. The 1970s religious movies (“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell,” “Brother Sun Sister Moon”) were mostly aimed at hippies, who reclaimed Jesus as one of them. But Hollywood has by and large kept secular, keeping religion in the background, if at all, and only usually putting it up front when it was to be milked for horror (e.g., “The Exorcist” and its multitude knockoffs).

Then again, “Noah” isn’t just another “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (which was, like 1966’s “The Bible,” an underperforming beast that helped kill both the Biblical epic and the epic). It’s a weird, highly personal product that never uses the word “God” (they say “The Creator”), features rock monsters and has Russell Crowe’s Noah anguishing over the burden weighing down his shoulders. And this winter’s “Exodus” is made by Ridley Scott, an atheist. This new rush to sell movies to the faithful may be a cynical bum rush for money. But the film might wind up more interesting for those who aren’t churchgoers.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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