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What would Jesus direct?

That was the provocative question debated at a panel discussion I attended as part of the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York. On the panel were four Hollywood insiders who are also Christian: the actor Cuba Gooding Jr., the producer Ralph Winter (“X-Men”), Micheal Flaherty from Walden Media (producers of “The Chronicles of Narnia”), and Jonathan Bock, head of Grace Hill Media, a PR firm that markets mainstream movies to Christian audiences.

With an occasional “Hallelujah!” from Gooding, the panelists discussed whether Hollywood has seen the light as far as making movies of interest to Christian audiences–and whether Jesus would make dark, edgy art-house films or happy family-friendly blockbusters. Looming over the discussion were three films that the panelists invoked repeatedly: One box-office failure (“The Last Temptation of Christ“), one success (“The Passion of the Christ”), and one not-yet-released (“Da Vinci Code,” as if I needed to tell you that).

On the first: “I so laugh at Hollywood,” Gooding said. “‘The Passion of the Christ’ made a hell of a lot of money–no pun intended–and now everyone is scurrying to have the next faith-based project that goes through the roof. The audience has been there for years.”

On the second: “I think ‘The Last Temptation of Christ”s biggest sin was that it was boring,” Bock said. “The movie has to be good. It has to be a good story, it has to be good acting, it has to be good directing, it has to be good marketing.”

And on the third: “I think what they [churches] have come to believe is, if the whole world wants to talk about Jesus, then let’s be ready to have a conversation about Jesus,” Bock said. “When is the next time in pop-culture that people are going to care what really happened at the Council of Nicea?”

What emerged from all this was a consensus that, post-“Passion,” Hollywood realizes there’s a major underserved Christian audience out there. And they want those bucks. They’re just not sure how to go about doing that.

“One of the mistakes people make is they think that they can just throw in a church scene here, throw in a bit of scripture here,” Flaherty said. “They’re losing the point, that it’s all about great stories. If it doesn’t exist in the DNA of the story, you can’t just dab it on like makeup.”

But slowly, the panelists said, Hollywood is starting to focus more on the Christian market. Bock compared it to the African-American market 30 years ago: Starting with small-budget “blaxploitation” films that pulled in big bucks, studios continued to make more and bigger films geared toward African-American audiences.

Bock predicted that we’ll see that same trend in the Christian world–a phenomenon he dubbed “Godsploitation.” One test, he added, will be New Line’s “Nativity,” scheduled for a December release, which dramatizes Mary and Joseph’s lives in the year leading up to Jesus’ birth.

That’s all well and good, but the pressing question remains: What would Jesus direct?

Winter had the most specific answer: The parables, specifically, the Prodigal Son. “The story is a little dark. At the end, the older brother and the dad have some serious family therapy to go through,” he said. “Sometimes Christians want to go after movies that have happy endings, no darkness, so subtext, no fun. So I wonder if Jesus wouldn’t be directing an R-rated art film that might be playing at this festival.”

Bock thought Jesus’ films would be much more “populist” than that: “I think it would be funny, it would be poignant, it would be commercially successful.”

The real questions I was left with: Would any major studio greenlight a project from a Hollywood unknown like Jesus? And has he gotten any bankable stars attached to his project yet?

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