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Hollywood’s Evangelical Experiment

Reuter’s reports: “Evan Almighty” Cursed at Box Office. The “most expensive comedy ever made” — withflood.jpg an official price tag of $175 million — opened at No. 1, but took in far less than projected. Which lead the L.A. Times to suggest that the movie “could be the first big-budget bomb of the summer.” It leads to continued speculation that Hollywood’s evangelical experiment is not working.

In a way, I gotta give them credit. Hollywood knows we’re out here — they just don’t know how to reel us in. The “religious demographic” usually poses problems for the studio exec. John Horn and Sheigh Crabtree in Hollywood’s Leap of Faith with Evan Almighty writes:

It’s been decades since biblically grounded films — such as Richard Burton’s “The Robe” (1953) and Charlton Heston’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956) — were routine major studio fare. In recent years, religiously themed movies were either low-budget works like “The Nativity Story” or self-financed productions such as Mel Gibson’s divisive “The Passion of the Christ.” When the big studios did explore serious religious narratives, the price in controversy sometimes outweighed the rewards at the box office, as was the case with Universal’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988.

If “Evan Almighty” turns into a summer hit, as several competing studio executives predict, the movie could put Hollywood back in the business of making big-budget movies that intentionally embrace sacred subjects.

And if not? Perhaps it means Hollywood is simply out of touch with Christians.

Universal has gone to great lengths to convince church-goers that Evan Almighty does not deride, but affirms, their faith. Part of that effort includes partnering with Grace Hill Media, a local publicity and marketing firm formed to “assist Hollywood studios [to] bridge the religious divide with the country’s estimated 200,000 churches and millions of worshipers.”

But, as of this point, the “bridge” appears faulty. Jeffrey Overstreet consolidates reviews, revealing a split among religious reviewers concerning the film. Most of the negative / lukewarm reviews suggest the film just ain’t that funny. But I think Slate may be closer to analyzing why “Evan” will or will not succeed among religious audiences. In a piece entitled Just Say Noah, David Plotz suggests that the movie is simply another one of Hollywood’s efforts to pander to religious moviegoers. He rightly points out that, biblically-speaking, the Flood of Noah was a horrendous act of judgment that wiped out all life on earth, save for Noah’s ark. Crafting a comedy out of this grim event is the height of sacrilege.

I give Hollywood credit for continuing to work the angles. They know we’re out here. But until they stop approaching the “religious audience” so generically, as just another marketing block, I’m afraid their “biblical comedies” could be catastrophes and our “biblical catastrophes” will simply be fodder for the next experiment.

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{ 3 comments… add one }
  • dayle June 27, 2007, 5:24 PM

    Hollywood just doesn’t get Christians. You can’t just write a movie that lightly leans toward the Bible – you have to understand what appeals to the Bible reader. You can’t write to a market that you don’t understand. They need to bring in writers who are Christian and start from the ground up. You can’t write at a market, Writing must flow organically from a market.

    The power of the “character” of Jesus goes without saying. That’s why the Passion exploded. I have no doubt that if Hollywood or Mel Gibson did a Steven Speilberg -ized treatment of the life of Jesus – it would soar to at least the top 5 of the rankings of money-making movies in history.

    The problem is that Hollywood thinks that if they make a movie about the life of a third tier character from the well of Christianity ( let’s say Joseph of Armithea ) and it doesn’t bring in $200 million, then they assume the market is dead.

    Or, they will write a movie that is so waterdowned with the “generic god” they have created – Christians will avoid it because of the insincerity.

    Afterall, aren’t Christians just simple-minded hicks who ain’t never learned them no science. So – just say a few buzz words and they will be satisfied.

  • Michael Ehret June 27, 2007, 7:43 PM

    Have not seen Evan Almighty. But I do wonder how they deal with the fact that God has said He would never destroy life in this way again. I suppose “God” (the character in the movie) doesn’t actually destroy all life, but by some manipulation changes his mind… or is it all a dream in Evan’s mind?

  • Mike Duran June 28, 2007, 12:52 PM

    Michael, I’m unsure how the movie resolves but, from what I understand, there’s no flood. The fact that God said (the God of the Bible, not the one played by Morgan Freeman) He would not destroy the world again with water seems inconsequential to Hollywood. They just want a premise they can run with and, apparently, a modern day Noah sounds jiffy.

    Dayle, I tend to agree with you that Hollywood writes scripts from the outside in. A story that arises from the pen of an actual believer will, most likely, be truer to Scripture and resonate with other believers. But the only thing scarier than non-believers trying to fake it, is believers being hustled in by studio execs to “reach the religious.”

    Thanks for the comments, guys!

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