By Hollywood standards at least, the movie business is bracing for a flood of biblical proportions.
Not since “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur” more than a half-century ago has the industry bankrolled religious-themed pictures as it has this year, with four big-studio Christian films storming the multiplex, along with dozens of art-house titles.
Audiences have been faithful to the stories thus far. “Son of God,” 20th Century Fox’s $22 million film about Jesus, has collected more than $50 million since its release Feb. 28. “God’s Not Dead” stunned analysts by taking in $9.2 million in its first weekend.
And more tales are flocking to theaters:
† “Noah” (released on Friday). The story of the apocalyptic flood and the man who navigated it features Russell Crowe.
† “Heaven Is for Real” (April 16). Greg Kinnear stars in this story about a boy who has visions of heaven in a near-death experience during surgery.
† “Exodus” (Dec. 12). Ridley Scott directs this story of Moses, starring Christian Bale.
Hollywood has found profits in its prophets before: Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” rang up $371 million in 2004, and 1998’s “The Prince of Egypt” rose to $101 million. Christian-themed “Veggie Tales” has spun off two feature films and several TV shows.
Scholars say the industry’s recent conversion comes mostly because of healthy grosses.
“Hollywood has the same corporate and relativist values it has had for many years,” says Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “The producers have, however, identified a market that is underserved and won’t come to the movie theater to watch crazy violence and sex-drenched plots.”
And Hollywood is spending serious money to attract that segment: $125 million for “Noah,” which also stars Anthony Hopkins and Jennifer Connelly. Distributor Paramount Pictures says it expects a debut of $25 million to $30 million.
Analysts, however, say religious stories can be a wild card.
“In recent months, ‘Noah’ has generated a lot of controversy for deviating from the Old Testament story upon which it’s based,” says Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo. “Controversy drives conversation, which in turn creates awareness.” He says a $40 million debut “wouldn’t be surprising.”
Nor should Hollywood’s creative license shock viewers, says Peter Ellard, director of the Reinhold Niebuhr Institute of Religion and Culture at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.
“With regard to the biblical authenticity of these films,” Ellard says, “scholars are usually left shaking their heads.”