We had titled the piece "Passion Changes Everything," but in reality it didn't, because many so-called experts in Hollywood simply dismissed it as a one time event, a fluke that couldn't be repeated.
None of us who foresaw that huge opening were relying on inside movie- business information. We were just listening to the voices of people around the country who don't typically attend many movies and had a pretty good idea of the kind of stories they were interested in watching--and not watching--on the big screen.
Once again signs are pointing to another hit movie that will be seen by some of the same people who made "The Passion" such a box office sensation: "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe."
I've had a front row seat for these two recent transformative events in Hollywood, having produced the CD of music "inspired-by" "The Passion of the Christ" and worked as a consultant for the company that produced "Narnia" (though I am no longer there). This experience gave me a glimpse into how Hollywood has come to discover that the half of the American population that attends church each week isn't a niche market--it is the market. If a film can successfully speak to them and at the same time not alienate non-churchgoers, there is box office magic to be made.
In the case of "The Passion," the important lessons to be learned weren't that the country was yearning for Aramaic films subtitled in English, R-rated gore-fests, or films to which many people wouldn't bring their children. In spite of these things and not because of them, traditionalists flocked to see it anyway in record numbers.
But "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is the perfect storm. It is one of the most beloved stories of the 20th century, enjoyed by both devout Christians, those of other faiths and their secular counterparts, and is suitable for children and grandparents alike (and, not insignificantly, is presented in English).
The film mostly follows Lewis's lead and stays true to his text. Traditionalists are likely to be pleased that Disney and the production company Walden Media, under the supervision of co-producer Douglas Gresham--Lewis's stepson--did not attempt to change some of the obvious spiritual symbolism that Lewis wrote into the series and will likely show their gratitude at the box office.
If the film opens on 3,600 screens or more, it's entirely possible that box-office records for opening weekend and beyond will fall in a manner akin to a major leaguer hitting more than 100 homeruns in a season. If that happens, Hollywood will no longer be able to slough off such success, and analysts will have to wonder why it took an outsider like Walden Media founder Philip Anschutz to teach the industry a lesson about what Americans want to see at the movies.
The race will then be on to find stories that reach both the devout and the secular, that inspire them in different ways and for very different reasons, and allow the generations to enjoy them together. For Hollywood, the good news is that such stories, like Narnia, are legion and out there just waiting to be discovered, having gone largely unexplored by an all-too-often secular entertainment culture that wasn't looking for them. And coincidentally, all of this comes at a time when "new ideas" for films often means remaking old sitcoms and demanding that the public pay $10 to watch the updated version in a theater.
In January, for instance, one of 20th-century Christendom's most inspirational missionary tales, a story about the slaying of American missionaries by the Auca Indians in the mid 1950's, will debut in theaters without studio backing, released independently in 1,200 theaters. Though it's not likely to fare well at the box office because of its lack of studio backing and a lack of public awareness, "End of the Spear" will nonetheless be another example of the kinds of stories that could do very well if a major studio got behind them and marketed them to all Americans.
With the upcoming success of Narnia, news of the death of the film industry will be put on hold, as Hollywood is again reminded that the problems with the business are not about competition from DVDs or videogames, but a reflection of the need to tell stories that factor in the interests of millions of heretofore ignored Americans who prefer to consume media that affirms their deeply held beliefs instead of mocking them.