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c. 2008 Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly LOS ANGELES _ At the Academy Awards this weekend (February 24), the nominees for Best Picture portray some complex moral dilemmas: A pregnant teen figuring out what to do; a lawyer in an ethical crisis; a Western saga overwhelmed by evil; a romance doomed by lies; a clash between […]

c. 2008 Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly

LOS ANGELES _ At the Academy Awards this weekend (February 24), the nominees for Best Picture portray some complex moral dilemmas: A pregnant teen figuring out what to do; a lawyer in an ethical crisis; a Western saga overwhelmed by evil; a romance doomed by lies; a clash between an oil man and a greedy evangelist.

But except for the unsavory clergyman in “There Will Be Blood” and perhaps the title “Atonement,” there’s little explicit treatment of religion.

In 2004, Mel Gibson’s controversial movie “The Passion of the Christ” took in more than half a billion dollars. Film studios began looking for the next big hit to rake in what became known as the “Passion dollars.”

“Hollywood discovered there was money to be made off of those pesky Christians,” said religious author and broadcaster Dick Staub.

Amid the widespread perception that Hollywood had finally found religion, numerous new projects were launched. But four years later, faith-based blockbusters are still not flooding the big screen.

“What people in Hollywood hoped was that they would find a formula that would be a cash cow, kind of printing money off the backs of religious people. It hasn’t turned out that way so far,” Staub said.

Evangelicals in particular had long felt shut out by Hollywood. Many were thrilled in September 2006, when 20th Century Fox launched a new division called “Fox Faith.” The announcement was greeted with great fanfare and the expectation of many new movies for Christians.

Fox Executive Vice President of Home Entertainment Simon Swart said his company wanted to target what he calls an “underserved” segment of the market.

“What this initiative was about was releasing and distributing films that reflected back Judeo-Christian values (and) weren’t necessarily evangelical or preachy, but basically great story telling that reflected those values,” Swart said.

Since 2006, Fox Faith has focused on acquiring already-produced projects to release for video sale and rental. Some have overt faith themes, but many are marketed as “family-friendly.”

There have been few original productions. Many Fox Faith films have not done well at the box office, although they’ve been more successful on DVD.

Several Fox Faith projects have been based on bestselling Christian books, such as the popular “Love Comes Softly” romance series, and “Saving Sarah Cain.” “Sarah Cain” wasn’t released in theaters; it debuted on the Lifetime cable network and was then released in January on DVD.

Swart acknowledged that Fox Faith is reevaluating whether to even attempt future releases in theaters.

“There’s so much competition for every screen out there, and you’re really competing with the main line pictures,” he said. “And that’s really risky because … it’s very hard to get that money back again.”

Critics say it comes down to the resources Fox is willing to commit.

“Generally to make a good film, you’ve got to spend money,” said Staub. “Fox Faith has not spent good money. Therefore they’re not making good films. Therefore they’re not successful.”

Some film insiders raise concerns about labeling. Last year’s “The Ultimate Gift” was a heart-warming lessons-about-life story with big name actors who were not aware they were part of a “Christian” movie. The producers later questioned whether the Fox Faith label scared off a mainstream audience.

Even veteran insiders are seeing how tough it is to make a good faith-related film, with or without big studio backing. David Kirkpatrick is the former president of Paramount Pictures. He’s also an evangelical, and in 2005 he co-founded a Christian entertainment company called Good News Holdings.

“Historically, there really hasn’t been, in the past 50 years, a platform for Christians in the areas of movies, but (the situation) gives those who really want to try to make a difference and create an alternative voice an opportunity,” he said in late 2006.

One of Good News’ first projects was a film adaptation of novelist Anne Rice’s “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” about Jesus at age 7. With Rice’s blessing, they hired actors and were doing readings of the script. The project was quietly scrapped last year.

Other Good News movie projects were also apparently put on hold. No one answers the phone at the old corporate number. The Web site hasn’t been updated in months and Kirkpatrick, who’s now working on a reality TV project in Plymouth, Massachusetts, declined to comment.

Many observers say a big part of the problem is a lingering disconnect between the Hollywood establishment and religion.

“People in Hollywood have no clue how religious people, conservative religious people, think. Therefore they have no idea how to green light a film that would actually make sense to religious people,” said Staub.

Countered Fox’s Swart: “I think it actually goes back the other way, also. I don’t think the church quite understands Hollywood. And Hollywood’s very much for profit.” Swart said he is frequently approached by Christian filmmakers proposing new projects that have an overt faith message.

“It’s very powerful, but I would ask them the question who will pay $10 to see this,”’ Swart said.

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And still another complication: studios, like politicians, are discovering that evangelical Christians are not a monolithic crowd. Some enjoy the traditional “donkey and sandal” biblical epics; some like sentimental flicks with a happy ending and no cursing. Still others want films that explore faith issues with an edge.

Despite the fits and starts, filmmakers and studios alike say they remain committed to exploring faith-related movies on many fronts.

(A version of this story first appeared on the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.” This article may be reprinted by RNS clients. Please use the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly byline.)

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Photos of David Kirkpatrick and Simon Swart and file photos of Dick Staub and “The Passion of the Christ,” are available via https://religionnews.com.