You know a major studio’s marketing campaign for a big-budget blockbuster has come to a strange pass when it puts forward Ted Baehr, president of Movieguide and chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, as its most persuasive champion.
In the press, Baehr, whose website rates films for moral and spiritual content and attracts millions of readers each month, has been far more often a source for criticizing Hollywood than defending it. But after an organization called Faith Driven Consumer made headlines with a survey that suggested Paramount’s upcoming 3-D epic, Noah, undermines the themes of its biblical source, Baehr stepped forward to offer his qualified support for the film.
In an arguably leading question, Faith Driven Consumer asked visitors to its website: Would they be “satisfied with a biblically themed movie—designed to appeal to you—which replaces the Bible’s core message with one created by Hollywood?” Ninety-eight percent of respondents—none of whom confirmed that they’d seen the movie that Paramount has kept under tight wraps—said they would not. Faith Driven Consumer subsequently publicized their findings in a press release that was picked up by The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and The Huffington Post as well as other major news outlets.
Faith Driven Consumer said it worded the poll question the way it did based on reports last year that the original script by director Darren Aronofsky, who has been nominated for Academy Awards for his work on Black Swan (2010) and The Wrestler (2008), focuses on an environmental message. “The movie’s director appears to have replaced the Bible’s central point of God’s judgment on man’s inherent sin with a story focused on a contemporary environmental theme,” a statement attached to the survey explained.
But Baehr, who is one of the few people to have seen an unfinished cut of the $125 million Noah, claims the poll’s characterization is unwarranted. “Noah doesn’t significantly stray from the biblical source material and instead remains quite faithful,” he said in an interview with Yahoo Movies. “In fact, by the time the film comes out, the whole issue may be moot. All of the hyper-environmentalism that’s being reported, it’s not in the final movie. The environmental points are there, but they are dropped pretty quickly, and it’s more oriented toward salvation, and loving God, and being fruitful.”
Along with publicizing Baehr’s comments through the Christian film marketing company Grace Hill Media, Paramount has responded to negative press reports by taking the unusual step of releasing its internal tracking numbers for Noah. In a Feb. 18 press release, the studio revealed that with six weeks to go before Noah hits theaters, Nielsen’s National Research Group, the entertainment industry’s leading prerelease tracking firm, found that 83 percent of self-defined “very religious” moviegoers who are aware of the film say they’re interested in it. The release also stated that the Christian polling firm Barna Group recently found that “86 percent of Christian respondents who are aware of the film said they would recommend Noah to their friends.”
While Paramount no doubt hopes to attract the Christian audiences that made major financial successes of films like The Passion of the Christ and Sherwood Baptist’s Courageous, as well as the History Channel’s The Bible miniseries, it’s worth noting that those works were helmed by professing believers. The controversy surrounding Noah suggests that those same audiences could prove far more difficult to win over when the entertainment isn’t created by people who share their beliefs. And Paramount’s approach to churchgoing audiences and the response of some Christian organizations could portend ongoing issues for what is shaping up to be a small revival in biblically themed major motion pictures.
Pontius Pilate, which will reportedly star Brad Pitt, is currently listed as “in development” on industry website IMDb, as is The Redemption of Cain, a very loose retelling of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel (it involves vampires) produced by Will Smith. There are also rumors of a David and Goliath movie with Twilight’s Taylor Lautner attached to play David and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in talks to play the Philistine giant. But the next major Bible-based film to compete with Noah in terms of budget and star power is 20th Century Fox’s Exodus, a retelling of the Moses story starring Christian Bale and directed by self-professed agnostic Ridley Scott that is slated to release in December.
Like Aronofsky, Scott has racked up several Oscar nominations for his work on somewhat surreal, R-rated films. Yet if Noah is any indication, Scott’s mainstream critical acclaim on films like Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and Prometheus (2012) will do little to assure churchgoing audiences that his movie is worth their time.
For example, Dan Gainor, vice president of Business and Culture for the Media Research Center, has criticized Paramount for failing to make a sincere attempt to recount the Bible story of the flood, but rather trying to “make it into an Action/Adventure.” Catholic screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi Harrington has taken Aronofsky to task for using the Bible as fodder for his personal crusades against overpopulation and for environmentalism. However, both made the statements based on rumors of the film’s content. Neither has actually seen the film.
Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore, who calls himself “a devout Christian,” told The Hollywood Reporter that the challenge for big studios trying to court faith-based audiences is precisely this attitude of, “‘Whoa, whoa, whoa—a Hollywood studio is trying to tell a story from my faith, and I am skeptical.” Moore added that such critical voices do not “necessarily” represent 50 percent of Christians. Rather he feels they are “maybe 10 or 20 percent. And those people can be very noisy.”