Hollywood finds Christ as Foxfaith plans series of religious movies
Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
Wednesday September 20, 2006
Fifty years after Charlton Heston as Moses descended the mountain in Cecil B DeMille's Ten Commandments, Hollywood made its most direct appeal to Christian audiences yesterday with the launch of a new brand dedicated to producing films on religious themes.
FoxFaith, part of the home entertainment division of Rupert Murdoch's movie studio, plans to produce as many as a dozen new films a year. The first film under the banner, Love's Abiding Joy, a western based on a series by a Christian novelist, is scheduled for a limited two-week release in more than 250 cinemas on October 6, according to its distributors. Other releases will go straight to DVD for sale by Christian bookshops and other specialty retailers.
At a time when Christian programming is taking up a greater share of the US airwaves, and sales of Christian DVDs, CDs and books accounts for $4.34bn (£2.3bn) a year, the move by FoxFaith is the boldest foray by Hollywood into what was once seen as hostile terrain. Evangelicals and traditional Christians have long been alienated from Hollywood, accusing the big studios of producing films that glorify sex and immoral behaviour and do not chime with their values.
"We are excited to be having a place where people can go to see quality family films," said Laura Neutzling, vice-president of marketing for World Distribution, the distributors for Fox. "There hasn't been a great one-stop place for Christians to buy great family films that they can trust won't be offensive."
Fox began courting Christian audiences two years ago, soon after Hollywood was taken by surprise by the runaway commercial success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. "The groundswell that happened with a film like the Passion was really illuminating to Hollywood, that there were people willing to come out to the theatre who had previously eschewed Hollywood films because of the violence and questionable material," Ms Neutzling said.
The box office power of the faithful became more apparent this year with The Chronicles of Narnia. Other studios moved to cash in, with New Line Cinema scheduled to release The Nativity Story this December, and a forthcoming film version of Milton's Paradise Lost.
Christian retailers and commentators were sceptical that the company that helped make Paris Hilton a household name and produced TV programmes such as Nip/Tuck and The Simpsons was serious about making movies without swearing and sex scenes. However, the Fox initiative was spearheaded by a Christian, Jeff Yordy, who was assiduous at courting the community. FoxFaith also agreed to work with the Dove Foundation, which rates films for their Christian content. Eventually, Christian leaders were persuaded that FoxFaith was truly a separate enterprise.
"I don't know where their hearts are, but we have to be realistic. They have found an audience out there where Hollywood can make a lot of money and they are tapping into that," Ms Neutzling said.
The rapprochement between Hollywood and the heartland after years of alienation comes at a time when evangelicals and conservative Christians are feeling increasingly confident about their influence over American life, said John C Green, a fellow on religion at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
In recent years offerings of Christian books, and radio and television programming, has expanded dramatically, seeking to cater to a market of evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics that numbers as many as 100 million Americans. That audience is also increasingly affluent.
"Conservative Christians have experienced a good deal of upward mobility. They are college educated, suburban, and that gives them the resources in the market place to pursue their values," said Mr Green.
Evangelicals and other conservative Christians have also grown increasingly savvy about using their power to support films that endorse their values.
Next Sunday, at pulpits across America, preachers are expected to promote the soon to be released Facing the Giants, about the coach of a struggling high school football team.
"Coming and seeing a movie on opening weekend sends a huge message to Hollywood that when there are film companies that release these family films full of moral values Christians will send their support," said Rebecca Grace of the American Family Association.
Even so, it is unlikely that audiences will soon see a repeat of the Passion. "My guess is if you get a movie like that lightning doesn't strike twice. It is not likely to happen again, but you never know," said James Bowman, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in Washington.
God at the box office
The Passion of The Christ has grossed $612m (£325m) worldwide since its release in 2004, largely because of its appeal to evangelicals and conservative Christians. Last year The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe made $745m. Even films eschewed by conservative Christians had box office appeal. Despite being panned by critics and shunned by religious leaders, The Da Vinci Code has brought in $754m worldwide.