2016-06-30
For those who think contemporary movies are mostly made up of unnecessary sex and violence, "Hollywood" has become a code word for all that is wrong with contemporary American culture: loose morals, sexual impropriety, and the imposing of elitist values on an unwanting populace. So it may come as a surprise to many people that not only is there a significant presence of faithful Christians in the film industry, but that they are proud of their work and looking to clear up some misconceptions about what they do.

Barbara Nicolosi and Spencer Lewerenz, the executive and associate directors, respectively, of Act One, a training program for Christian screenwriters and executives, have edited a new book of essays by Christians in Hollywood, "Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture," and it may serve as something of a wake-up call to those who see Hollywood as Satan's backyard. These believers mourn the lack of awareness of the divine among so many of their colleagues, but do not view themselves as infiltrators into a debauched world, dedicating their lives to smuggling God into an atheistic culture. As each of the writers in "Behind the Screen" individually reflect on their careers, or the role of faith in film, they speak in unison about one thing: the only way for issues of faith to make their way into Hollywood films is for more people of faith to work there.

While "Behind the Screen" marks a call for Christians to take a step toward embracing Hollywood, Hollywood is doing its utmost to embrace Christians. Having discovered an enormous, previously unnoticed audience for Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," the film industry has begun to reach out to Christian audiences, in the hopes of attracting them to faith-friendly films. This has taken some odd turns, as when Columbia Pictures made a big push among religious audiences and church groups for last year's "Christmas With the Kranks," a slapstick holiday comedy starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis whose main religious selling point seemed to be that it took place on a Christian holiday.

Having grown more sophisticated in their marketing to Christian audiences (or maybe just having better films to work with), major studios are making a big push this holiday season and onward for religious moviegoers to embrace their films. This trend is visible on television as well, with the recent success of NBC's miniseries "Revelations," and upcoming programs like "The Ten Commandments."

20th Century Fox has leapt to the forefront, launching a faith-friendly version of their website (www.foxfaith.com) that features religious- and family-oriented films, and announcing their commitment to produce a baker's dozen of films for this audience. Fox also announced the establishment of relationships with born-again actors like Judge Reinhold and Stephen Baldwin, making an appearance with Baldwin at this year's Christian Booksellers' Convention to promote his new film "Midnight Clear."

Other upcoming or recent movies and TV series being marketed to Christians include:

"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe": One of the most anticipated films of this holiday season. Disney held a reception for the film at the Christian Booksellers' Convention, and a slew of new books on the Christian aspects of the film (and the C.S. Lewis book on which it is based), being released. Speculation has run rampant about how faithful the film and its planned sequels will be to the Christian allegory at the heart of Lewis' adventure tale, and Disney has marketed the film heavily in faith communities. Trailers are currently in theaters, and the film will open December 9.

Strawberry Shortcake goes biblical, Johnny Cash stays faithful.
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  • "Walk the Line": This Johnny Cash biopic, directed by James Mangold ("Girl, Interrupted," "Copland"), comes hot on the heels of last year's award-wining musician's bio "Ray," but elevates its subject's faith to front-and-center position. In the trailer, a studio executive asks Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix), "If you was hit by a truck, and you were lying out in that gutter, dying, and you had time to sing one song- one song, that would let God know what you felt about your time here on Earth, one song that would sum you up. That's the kind of song that truly saves people." The association of music with spirituality is complicated by Cash's friend Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Payne), who tells Cash, "We're all going to hell for the songs we sing." The film's trailer faithfully exudes the aura of a bygone era of music, when the musicians themselves questioned the spiritual value of their efforts, and hoped to serve God through music. The song playing in this trailer? Cash's appropriately biblical "Ring of Fire." "Walk the Line" opens November 18.

    "The Da Vinci Code": Ron Howard's film version of Dan Brown's smash bestseller has already run into controversy with Christians, who view the film's central theses about the life of Jesus with disdain and are concerned that gullible moviegoers will take its claims at face value. "Behind the Screen" co-editor Nicolosi was called in by producers to help make the film more palatable to Christians, and according to Sharon Waxman's article on the film in the New York Times, she made three suggestions: rendering sensitive aspects of the book's plot a bit more blurry; fixing Brown's art-historical mistakes; and removing controversial Catholic organization Opus Dei entirely. Whether Christian moviegoers will be satisfied enough to see the film remains to be seen. "The Da Vinci Code" opens next May.

    "The Roach Approach": This popular animated series, in which a family of roaches experience the adventures of the Bible, is set to reach a wider audience after parent company Wacky World Studios signed a long-term distribution deal with 20th Century Fox. The latest installment in the series, "The Mane Event," finds Squiggz and his family with Daniel in the lion's den. Having established a large audience for their family-friendly films, "The Roach Approach" is looking to break wide, marketing their new film to both Christian and mainstream retailers and audiences.

    "Strawberry Shortcake": The popular kid's series from the 1980s has been reinvented for religious audiences on DVD. 20th Century Fox, which put out the DVDs, is packaging them with Bible-study packets, intended for parents to go over with their children. With more than 6 million copies sold, "Strawberry Shortcake" has successfully marketed itself as a formerly mainstream product not only unobjectionable to religious audiences, but one that openly reaches out to the faithful.

    "The Ten Commandments": Set to premiere on ABC next year, this retelling of the Old Testament story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt is intended to capitalize on the just-discovered religious bent of television viewers. With a budget of over $20 million, and a cast that includes Dougray Scott (playing Moses), Linus Roache (Aaron), Mia Maestro (Zipporah), and Omar Sharif (as Jethro), this new "Ten Commandments" is set to run four hours over two nights.

    "Left Behind: World at War": The recently released third entry in the film series based on the best-selling novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins adopted an unusual form of dsitribution. The film's producers, Cloud Ten Pictures, marketed "Left Behind: World at War" to churches, in the hopes of getting the film to play Christian congregations nationwide, rather than opening in movie theaters. As the film's website puts it, "Re-writing the rule book on film strategy... think 200,000 plus Christian churches in America versus 5,000 theaters." "World at War" takes place after the Rapture, with an intrepid American President discovering the truth about a shadowy global dictator, and battling him. Starring born-again actors Louis Gossett Jr. and Kirk Cameron, "World at War" is an attempt to maintain the success of the film's two predecessors while shedding some of the hokey Christian-film vibes of "Left Behind: The Movie" and "Left Behind: Tribulation Force."

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