After the last election, a Newsweek poll found 67 percent of Americans believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, and 82 percent believe Jesus is the Son of God. Exit polls also found the No. 1 issue for Americans is "moral values." Hollywood declares (boasts?) it is delivering to the marketplace products demanded by the market. If that is so, why is the entertainment industry so incapable of looking at numbers like that as an opportunity to mine a vastly untapped source of riches?
The massive turnout for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ was supposed to change Hollywood’s resistance, even hostility, to religion, but there isn’t a whole lot of change in sight. The big Christian movie event of the year is the forthcoming release of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, a $150 million production based on the beloved Narnia series of C.S. Lewis.
The film was made by Walden Media, the family-friendly producer that recently delivered the acclaimed family movie Because of Winn-Dixie. Walden’s big-studio partner in the Narnia effort is Disney. They’ve hired Motive Entertainment, the same firm that promoted buzz for The Passion among Christians. The Narnia story, for the uninitiated, is the Passion story: Aslan the lion dies for the transgressions of others and is resurrected to defeat evil. Churches across the country are building enthusiasm for the movie, purported to be a much better cinematic presentation of the Lewis books than previous movie-making attempts.
So why are some at Disney so uncomfortable with the religious theme in their own movie, a message embraced by 82 percent of Americans?
"We believe we have not made a religious movie," Dennis Rice, Disney’s senior vice president of publicity, told the Washington Times. "It’s just a great piece of cinema that is true to a great piece of literature." The message in that is clear: Don’t think this is a Christian film, because that is box-office death. Why not: "This is a fabulous story that also has a glorious message about faith and redemption"?
The reason for this unease is simple. There are people who are disturbed by the promotion of religion in the culture. Gov. Jeb Bush found this out when he promoted the first Narnia book for Florida schoolchildren in his "Just Read, Florida" program. Barry Lynn of the perpetually annoying group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State objected to this as a governmental encouragement of children’s literature with Christian overtones. You can have school teachers assign students to read books about rape, drug addiction, and accepting homosexuality as normal, but there better not be a Christian metaphor on the reading list.
Governor Bush’s Just Read campaign is funded by Walden Media, so there is a commercial tie-in. But the program also promoted Carl Hiaasen’s book Hoot (also being made into a Walden movie), which pits owl-loving environmentalist kids against greedy developers. The anti-religion crowd had no problem with that book’s promotion.
This is not to say, however, that a book with a Christian message is going to be a guaranteed hit at the theater. The Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have sold an astronomical 70 million copies, but when the first two books were turned into movies, they bombed at the theater. Hollywood is now trying a radical innovation with Left Behind: World at War, the third movie attempt. It is releasing the film exclusively in churches — specifically, on screens in 3,200 churches, 1,200 of which can seat more than 2,000 viewers. Between this and future DVD sales, Hollywood sees this Christian underground as a potential marketing bonanza, as well it should: According to the Washington Post, the Christian Booksellers Association claims sales of Christian books, music, DVDs, apparel and gifts now exceed $4 billion annually. Why not insert appropriate Hollywood programming into this marketplace?
It’s an interesting marketing plan, but disturbing as well. As Peter Lalonde, a co-producer of the Left Behind series, puts it, "They are selling Hollywood films to the Christian marketplace, not making genuinely Christian films in Hollywood."
And in that rare moment of clarity, when Hollywood does do something spectacular — and I assure you The Chronicles of Narnia will be a spectacular success — there are those within the industry who are still uncomfortable. After all the darkness in today’s entertainment, all the mass distribution of gore and horror and evil, why is it so hard to see an emerging market for a little inspirational light — and embrace it?