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Noah, machine gun preachers, religious cops, golfers finding their faith — good family movies with solid plots, beautiful cinematography and A-list stars are shaking Hollywood to its violent, filthy, perverse core — but the studios don’t care as long as it makes lots of money.

“In many quarters, Hollywood has long been regarded as an essentially godless place. But judging by the offerings at the movies this season, and more in the works, Tinseltown is rediscovering religion,” writes Susan King for the Los Angeles Times:

In the span of just a few weeks starting in late August, audiences looking for God at their local multiplex have had their choice of titles, including Higher Ground, a chronicle of one woman’s struggle with her faith; Seven Days in Utopia, an inspirational golf drama; and Machine Gun Preacher, about an evangelist who takes up arms in Africa.

And the onslaught isn’t slowing down. Courageous, about policemen wrestling with their faith after a tragedy, opened this weekend. Emilio Estevez’s The Way, about a father on a religious pilgrimage, is set for Friday.

Christian Bale has been mentioned to play the lead in a $150 million big screen adaptation of Noah’s Ark that Paramount and New Regency jointly announced they will distribute.

This summer’s films, note King, follow the success this spring of Soul Surfer, about a Christian teen surfer’s comeback after losing an arm to a shark. The film brought in nearly $44 million at the U.S. box office. Unlike low-budget, poor-quality films of the recent past, this latest batch feature stars such as Gerard Butler, Emilio Estevez, Robert Duvall, Louis Gossett Jr., Helen Hunt, Melissa Leo, Helen Mirren and Martin Sheen.

The Noah film is Darren Aronofsky’s childhood dream. John Logan of Gladiator and The Aviator is currently working on rewrites of the script. It was born when Aronofsky as a 13-year-old won a United Nations competition with a poem about the end of the world as seen through the eyes of the Ark builder. That’s the idea for the film, he says:

It’s the end of the world and it’s the second-most famous ship after the Titanic. So I’m not sure why any studio won’t want to make it. I think it’s really timely because it’s about environmental apocalypse which is the biggest theme, for me, right now for what’s going on on this planet. So I think it’s got these big, big themes that connect with us. Noah was the first environmentalist.

Since I was a kid, I have been moved and inspired by the story. The imaginations of countless generations have sparked to this epic story of faith. It’s my hope that I can present a window into Noah’s passion and perseverance for the silver screen.

It seems religious epics are making a comeback in a big way. Why? Because crowds love the films, notes Michelle Bearden in the Kansas City Star. 

The phenomenon is forcing a mix of diverse cultures. At the  Georgia-based Sherwood Pictures, each day of shooting on the Courageous set began with a devotional and time of prayer — not your average Hollywood moment.

“This film company is about as far from Hollywood as you can get,” notes Bearden. “It’s a ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., a midsize town about three hours south of Atlanta. Its purpose: Produce movies that promote a Christian message using mostly volunteers, then funnel the profits into outreach programs that benefit communities and start-up churches.”

Bearden quotes Sherwood sound-mixer Rob Whitehurst:

“It’s not about making money with them. It’s about making a difference. They use movies as a way to get that message across globally. They know this is a medium that has the power to impact people way beyond the pews.”

What makes the Sherwood experience different from the secular productions he has worked on?

“They pray a lot,” Whitehurst says. “They aren’t moving on something unless God moves them to do it. And if you look at what they’ve accomplished, you will understand that God has answered their prayers.”

Why are audiences clamoring for inspirational films with solid spiritual messages?

“A confluence of factors — including the economic and social difficulties facing the country in the last few years, a desire among actors and directors for interesting roles and the success of 2009’s rather religious The Blind Side — seem to be at work,” writes King.

“We are doing some serious soul-searching as a nation, trying to decide who we are going to be and what we are going to stand for,” said Craig Detweiler, director of the Center of Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University, which is affiliated with Churches of Christ. “I think that does take us back to ultimate questions, whether as filmmakers or audiences.”

Emmy Award winner Kathy Baker appears in Seven Days and Machine Gun both times as a devout woman. Though she considers herself a spiritual person, she said she was drawn to the projects because they were both strong roles. And in the case of Machine Gun, she had the opportunity to work with director Marc Forster.

“You have this wonderful director who can do anything and you give him this great story that has to deal with international politics. It’s only a coincidence to me that it’s faith-based.”

The 1950s, notes King, were a particularly ripe time for epic religious dramas — including DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, as well as Ben Hur and Quo Vadis — plus other titles such as The Robe.

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was a hit in 2004, but he made it on his own. After that and The Blind Side, which earned $256 million in the U.S. and for which Sandra Bullock took home the lead actress Oscar last year, studios and independent filmmakers are taking a fresh look at spiritual stories.

Gibson has made a deal with Warner Bros. for a film about the life of Judah Maccabee, the warrior whose ancient victory is celebrated at Hanukkah. Warner Bros. also has a Moses movie in development. Rise of the Planet of the Apes producer Peter Chernin has another Moses project in the works for 20th Century Fox.

Courageous is the latest effort from the unabashedly Christian filmmaking team of brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick.

They are ministers and as kids loved making movies. They realized decided films were a perfect vehicle to deliver the Christian message to a wide audience.

With a $20,000 donations from their church, they made their debut in 2003 with Flywheel, a drama about a crooked used car dealer who turns his life around after becoming a Christian, writes King:

Next came 2006’s Facing the Giants, about a high school football coach in crisis who prays to God for help. In 2008, their film “Fireproof,” a drama starring Kirk Cameron as a firefighter with a flagging marriage and an addiction to Internet porn who becomes a born-again Christian, was the highest-grossing indie film of the year, making $33.5 million.

“Our target audience is the faith audience first,” said Alex Kendrick, who directs, edits and stars in the movies, while his brother produces; the two share writing duties. “But we realize with each of our previous movies there is a good bit of bleed-over and we do have a significant number of viewers who may not have a faith of their own.”

Since completing Courageous, Alex Kendrick and his brother are unsure what’s on the horizon, he told King.

“We are now praying about the next project,” Kendrick said. “We’re in a season of prayer where we say ‘God, what do you want us to do next?’ “

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