A few days ago, while watching the movie “Fireproof” with some friends, I wondered aloud why Hollywood struggled so much to make good religious films. All of us watching the film had seen at least moderately successful Christian movies. According to Box Office Mojo, four Christian-themed films have made more than $100 million at the box office since 1980. Three of them are members of the Chronicles of Narnia series, based on the children’s novels by C.S. Lewis. The fourth is the Mel Gibson religious epic Passion Of The Christ . Besides these hit movies have been moderately successful movies like “Heaven Is For Real,” “God’s Not Dead,” “Courageous,” “Fireproof,” and a few films on the life of Jesus Christ Himself. On the other hand, attempts by Hollywood to make religious epics in films like Noah and Exodus: God And Kings have not been greatly successful. What sort of factors help explain how Hollywood fails so badly at religious epics even while Christian movies have similarly often failed to move beyond the niche market of self-aware Christian filmgoers.
One of the factors that all of the most successful Christian films have shared is fidelity to a text. “Passion Of The Christ” was notable in its attempt to capture the verisimilitude of life in the Gospel era even to the point of its use of ancient languages and subtitles. Likewise, the adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels have the budget to show the dramatic fantasy elements of the books, and the fan base large enough to make such efforts profitable. On the other hand, efforts from Hollywood studios to make mainstream films based loosely on the Bible have often failed, and one of the main reasons for that failure has been the lack of fidelity to the texts that have been adapted. A Noah film without God, for example, is not a film that will likely appeal to any with Christian beliefs, and few people without some sort of biblically based religious worldview would care enough about the story of Noah to see it.
Here we see another factor that contributes to the gap between Christian niche films and mainstream Hollywood flops. A substantial Christian audience is willing to overlook bad acting and sometimes heavy-handed approaches to see a film that offers a godly presentation of virtue or a Christian worldview. Yet the mainstream moviegoing audience is sufficiently ignorant of the Bible and either hostile or indifferent to the biblical worldview that the Bible itself or God’s ways are not a particular draw to see a movie. Only films that can capitalize on an existing fanbase or which appeal broadly and competently to overarching concerns of practical Christian living have been successful in recent years. Since the low budget of many Christian films hinders competent filmmaking (especially in the writing of scripts, in visual and sound effects, and in hiring good actors), such films only appeal to existing believers. Since the vast majority of Hollywood filmmakers appear to have little or no interest in being faithful to any text, much less the Bible or related Judeo-Christian literature, such films are unlikely to gain the interest of the only sector of the market interested in the material to begin with.
There are yet other issues. One of these issues is the great fragmentation of the Christian market. Hollywood, with its desire for profits and praise, sees a large body of believers within America as a potential market that is largely unreached by many of its offerings, and its studios naturally wish to appeal to such an audience to win their money. Yet Hollywood is not seeking to appeal to a Christian audience as a whole, for such a cohesive identity does not appear to exist. Instead of there being one or a few gatekeepers whose approval would lead to massive appeal, films are judged on a denominational by denominational or even congregational by congregational basis. An interpretation that may appeal to the few but influential social Gospel believers is likely to offend those of a more conservative political worldview. Even films produced by mainstream Christian studios tend to avoid specific denominational presentations, so that there might be nothing to mark its characters as being Baptists if it wishes for Presbyterians or Methodists to watch it. A few films have been released with obvious Mormon overtones, but these have generally appealed (or been known to) only a small Mormon subculture. The fragmentation of Christianity and the absence of widely accepted cultural gatekeepers as to what presents a Christian worldview in a sympathetic light makes it hard to mobilize the audience numbers that are required to support moderate to big-budget productions.
What is to be done about this? It appears as if there is some effort on both sides that would be necessary for pro-biblical cultural artifacts to become more widespread. For one, those who attempt to appeal to Christian (or Jewish) material must have a sympathy and understanding of the worldview and know that it is on these grounds that cultural artifacts are going to be judged. Likewise, on the side of Christians, there needs to be some effort as well if we wish to see more godly fare. The creation of films, and indeed art in general, requires a great deal of time and effort. Scripts must be written and rewritten, costume designers and set designers must create a certain feel, actors must be cast, there must be filming and producing (all of which requires a great deal of logistical efforts to be done well with food and cameras), there must be post-production work for visual and sound effects and scoring and films must be distributed and marketing. For this effort to be done, it needs to pay. The laborer is worthy of his hire. As a result, there needs to be an attitude change on the part of Christians as a whole with regards to art and literature and film–rather than looking for matters to criticize, we need to look at what films and music and books and art we can wholeheartedly embrace and appreciate. It is through an appreciation and support of good art that leads more of such art to be made. Success breeds imitation, after all, and if we want more godly cultural works, we must make sure to support those which now exist so that others will follow. How to do that remains a serious question.
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