Here are today’s dispatches from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

1. Amid controversy, plug is pulled in Mel Gibson’s Judah Maccabee story. From TheWrap: Warner Bros. has put on hold a controversial Mel Gibson movie project about the Jewish Maccabee revolt in the 2nd Century B.C. after reading the script by writer Joe Eszterhas, TheWrap has learned…Jewish groups were outraged after news broke in September that Gibson had reached a production deal with Warner’s to direct the story of Judah Maccabee, whose victory over Greek and Syrian armies is celebrated at Hanukkah…(Joe) Eszterhas…delivered the script in late February, and Warner’s has since passed on it, according to an individual close to the project. Warner production president Greg Silverman described it as lacking in “feeling” and “a sense of triumph,” according to the individual…But in an explosive letter to Gibsonobtained by TheWrap, Eszterhas said that the director never planned to make the movie, and was using him to deflect Gibson’s anti-Semitic reputation…Gibson responded in a letter to Eszterhas: “Both Warner Brothers and I were extraordinarily disappointed with the draft. In 25 years of script development I have never seen a more substandard first draft or a more significant waste of time. The decision not to proceed with you was based on the quality of your script, not on any other factor.” (Full story @ TheWrap)

Note: While the Gibson-Eszterhas collaboration appears to be finito, Odyssey Networks and Nash Entertainment have also been working on developing their own miniseries version of the saga of Judah Maccabee called Eight (as in eight days of Hanukkah). Some months ago, I spoke with Odyssey EVP and Chief Content Officer Maura Dunbar about the project.

JWK: Can you tell me something about where you are in developing Eight?

MAURA DUNBAR: Yes, I’m glad you’ve asked…We have a fully-written script. We started back in February of 2007…We were approached by Bruce Nash and his producing partner Bob Kosberg…They had this idea with Scott Abbott.

 JWK: So the idea for producing Eight actually arose before the announcement of Mel Gibson’s planned movie?

MAURA DUNBAR:  Oh, yes. We made a deal. They came to us with this idea and as an interfaith company we realized that there was an opportunity to tell one of the great stories of battles for faith that had not been explored, not really been told. It’s an amazing battle story and a story of human triumph and a battle for belief that hasn’t really been depicted in film. So, we contracted and we hired Scott Abbot to write the script. We partnered with Bruce and Bob to produce. We have taken this around town.

Scott unfortunately went through a very difficult illness and was hospitalized and to be honest with you he was on the transplant list for a new kidney. He was that sick. I look back on it and it’s one of the things I appreciate about being able to work with this company…I had the ability, because of who we are as a company, to live out (the value of) compassion in business and I stuck with Scott. I did not take this project away from him. I did not go to another writer. If I was at the network, my pressure would have been to ditch out of that writer. I could have well gotten out of that deal. No agent would have fought me on it. I could have settled and I could have gone on to another writer. But Scott so loved this project…He was so connected (to it). It was like the thing he lived for to write because he loves to write. And I have to say I think it’s one of his best scripts.

JWK: Is he okay now?

MAURA DUNBAR: Yes. It ended up being, believe it or not, a heart virus. A virus that settled in his heart and which then had all these other consequences, shutting organs down and so forth. He’s fine. He is vibrant. In fact, he’s writing. He’s publishing a book.

In the whole (media) huff-puff with Mel Gibson, there’s a story of belief and faith that’s sort of getting lost in the shuffle…Scott developed this story based on sacred texts. We’ve had a rabbinical scholar…review it…And, of course, on our board we have Jewish, Christian and Islamic (scholars). So we really have come to this story to tell a great story of faith, as opposed to a story with an agenda. In any case, miniseries are very difficult to mount

JWK: So, this is planned as a miniseries. For which network?

MAURA DUNBAR: We are trying to find a network. We have a fully written part one and a very detailed 30-40 page treatment (of part two).

In the world of TV movies, you have to put a deal together in order to get your movie made…So, you have to find international money. There’s not a lot happening internationally right now. The EU is suffering…We had a brief glimmer of hope where it looked like we had interest from Spain, Germany, Italy (and) South Africa for a miniseries. If we were able to bring that money to the table, I would have then gone to a US broadcast network and said “Look there’s a great opportunity to do this story much in the way that The 10 Commandments was done. You could air this around the holidays where it will be a perennial.

There’s this wonderful great story behind the Hanukkah celebration that nobody really knows. But the European market has fallen flat…International buyers at this last MIP (TV buyers convention) at Cannes said “We’re not doing miniseries . We only do two hours.”  So, now I have to sort of reconfigure.

It’s not (like) Starz doing Spartacus or even Pillars of the Earth, where as a premium pay cable network their viewers expect a greater graphic depiction of sex and violence which unfortunately doesn’t suit out faith-based constituency. We do have a certain level of broadcast network standards that we think about being a multi-faith company. We don’t want to be in a gratuitous situation. It’s not that we don’t have battles. It’s not that we don’t have a great love story but it’s how we would depict it. We are at a crossroads.  We are trying to find investment and financing and find the funding that will be able to make this project come to life.

Note: I plan to keep you posted on any new developments regarding Eight.

2. Faith-themed that would make good movies.  Back to the Gibson-Eszterhas situation, if Joe Eszterhas is looking to do another faith-based script I might suggest one based on his own autobiography CROSSBEARER: A MEMOIR OF FAITH (St. Martin’s Press).  The compelling auto-biography recounts how Eszterhas, the author of erotic movies like Basic Instinct and Showgirls, discovered God and through that discovery the strength to give up his addictions to alcohol and tobacco – as well as to survive a horrible battle with throat cancer.

That book is on my list of autobiographical literary works I personally think would likely make outstanding movies. Others on the list include:

A BOLD FRESH PIECE OF HUMANITY by Bill O’Reilly (Random House)
Published in 2008, the book in which the top-rated cable talk show host recalls how his Catholic education helped shape him into the person he is today, spent a solid year on the New York Times bestseller list.  Obviously, O’Reilly and the entire Fox News Channel would provide a forum to promote the hell (I mean heck) out the movie. And, yet, as far as I can gather, there is not movie planned — not even from Fox’s own movie studio.  Inexplicable.

BEYOND BLUE by Therese Borchard (Center Street)
Beliefnet’s own blogger has written a riveting, witty and inspirational account of her own battle with depression. She recounts how her own Catholicism both contributed to her illness and helped provide the light and support that would see her through.  It would make a great movie — with a leading role meaty enough to nail an Oscar for its star. Let the bidding war begin!

This one’s the Apollo 13 of our day in that the actual facts of the story require virtually no writer embellishment. You no doubt remember the story of the Atlanta woman who in 2005  was taken hostage by a fugitive who shot his way out of an Atlanta courtroom.  After several tense hours she talked him into allowing her to go free resulting in the nonviolent end of a real-life drama that captivated the nation. Of course, her own road to devout Christianity and the book The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, the famed evangelical pastor of California’s Saddleback Church, were key to the story’s happy ending. Could those facts have anything to do with Hollywood’s skittishness?

IN THE PRESENCE OF MY ENEMIES by Gracia Burnham  (Tyndale House Publishers)
Another true story written by the person who lived it — and, again, the screenplay would virtually write itself.  In 2001 Gracia Burnham was a Protestant missionary who, along with her missionary husband, spent a year in captivity by Islamist terrorists
operating in the southern Philippines.  Her husband was killed in the daring rescue that freed her.  An amazing — and dramatic — story of faith. Yet no discernible interest from Hollywood that I’m aware of.

3. The Unlimited Express rolls on. Speaking of faith-themed books and movies, the ideas behind The Three Keys That Open the Door to Great Success by Harold Finch as I have reported form the basis for the upcoming fictional suspense drama Unlimited. The film (and the real person on whom its lead character is loosely based) continues to garner grassroots media interest even a year before its planned theatrical release.  Here’s a piece from the Lee’s Summit Journal.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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