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HOLYWOOD: Charlton Heston as Moses in <i>The Ten Commandments</i>
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HOLYWOOD: Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments

Back to the Bible

Movies | Economics and new technology rekindle Hollywood's interest in Old Testament epics

Issue: "The new urban frontier," March 9, 2013

NEW YORK—Everything about the set of Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming biblical epic, Noah, cries big budget. From the ark (a towering, multi-level construction built to Genesis’ specifications); to the A-list cast (Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins); to the large, meandering crews of teamsters (whose strict lunch and break rules are pushing shooting hours off schedule), it’s clear that Paramount is committed to making Noah a hit.

The film, which is expected to hit theaters in March 2014 and will reportedly cost the studio $150 million, represents the first of what many industry insiders are calling the return of Bible movies. And they’re not talking about the low-cost, church-financed productions that have found a measure of success in recent years. They’re talking about major directors, major stars, and major layouts of cash.

Just a few of the projects in the pipeline at the moment are two competing Moses films—one with Steven Spielberg attached to direct, another with Ridley Scott; a Pontius Pilate epic that will reportedly star Brad Pitt; and a retelling of Cain and Abel produced by Will Smith. Though not strictly a Bible-based movie, there are even rumors that MGM is planning to remake the 1959 Charlton Heston classic, Ben Hur.

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All of this raises the question—why, after 50 years of giving Scripture the cold shoulder, has Hollywood apparently fallen in love again with the good book?

Jonathan Bock, president of the Christian entertainment marketing firm, Grace Hill Media, believes at least one of the motivations is simple economics. “The thing about Bible stories is that they’re public domain. In other words, studios don’t have to a pay license fee to obtain them—they don’t have to pay Marvel; they don’t have to pay DC [Comics]. And as an added bonus they [Bible stories] have a huge built-in awareness level.”

Of course, this has been true for the past five decades, but Bock says studios’ recent awakening to the financial potential of Bible films can be summed up in five words: The Passion of the Christ.

“Entertainment is built on a business model of trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice,” explains Bock. “So if a movie with vampires becomes a huge hit, you’ll start seeing a lot of vampire movies. But because Passion was made outside of the studio system, Hollywood wasn’t primed to take advantage of it. It takes time to develop institutional knowledge, and it has taken them this long to figure out how to produce, distribute, and market films of this kind.”

Bock says Passion not only blazed the trail for making hits out of Bible stories, but also for a new way for the film industry to relate to religious audiences. “Over the course of the last 12 years,” he says, “Hollywood has gone from seeing the faith community as an enemy to seeing it as an important customer, a bankable audience.” While it might not be surprising that some in the faith community would be leery of this new trend, Bock says believers should give the mainstream offerings a chance: “It’s in the studios’ best interest to get them right, so they’re trying to get them right.”

In evidence of Bock’s point, the staff of Noah includes one member whose job title would surely have been a puzzle to filmmakers 15 years ago—theological advisor. To make sure the movie gives appropriate weight to the spiritual significance of the flood account, Paramount hired former youth pastor John Snowden to give them notes on the script, an opportunity Snowden says he takes seriously. “I’ve really tried to make sure they understand what this story means to those of us who view the Bible as the inerrant word of God. I’ve tried to explain where Noah belongs in the overarching story of God’s redemption of mankind.”

Asked if he sees a future in this kind of consulting, Snowden says he’s refused to let himself consider the possibility. “I was worried if I did I would start tempering my words with a view to getting another project. My job is to represent the truth of Scripture to the filmmakers as best as I can without worrying how they might take it.” For the most part, Snowden says he’s found Aronofsky and his producers receptive to what he has to say. “They’ve shown a lot of respect for the concerns I’ve brought up and a lot of willingness to make adjustments.”

While the man behind such R-rated films as Black Swan and The Wrestler may not seem a likely cheerleader for Bible movies, Aronofsky, who is Jewish, says he’s actually been trying to get Noah made since his breakthrough film, Pi, in 1998. “When I first went to studios with it I was a very young guy, and the Hallmark movie with Jon Voigt was coming out at the time. And even though what I was pitching was a very different thing, everyone was like, ‘Nah they just did that.’ But it’s always been in my head.”

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