Hollywood Recycles Everything But 'Ben Hur'

Hollywood loves to copy anything that makes a mint, be it a superhero movie, slasher film or spy thriller.

The moment the Friday the 13th remake blew away the competition, studios ran to their vaults to see what other “classic” horror movies they could bring back to life.

How many current movies mimic the Bourne action template?

But Hollywood has its limits when it comes to its copycat ways. Studios won’t break out the Xerox machine if the hit in question deals with religion.

The combined success of The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe didn’t spark a wave of Christian-friendly films, or even a sprinkling of religious epics.

Not one.

Aren’t there any studios itching to make the next Ben Hur?

And, just recently, another Tyler Perry dramedy hits theaters and made a small fortune despite no A-listers in the cast or big promotional budgets. Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail hit number one at the box office in its first week of release and is closing in on the $90 million mark.

Shouldn’t Hollywood be combing the streets for the next Tyler Perry? Instead, entertainment media outlets print pretty much the same story with every Perry release. The theme? How the media mogul is taking Hollywood by surprise. Again.

You don’t have to be Kreskin to predict a Perry movie will score big at the box office. His product is as reliable as a Seattle rainstorm.

Think of the goodwill the movie industry could engender if it made another Passion style film, or even a Tyler Perry clone. Conservative movie critics would have to find another topic to grouse about, and swathes of Middle America might think differently of the Hollywood Dream Factory.

Yet studios refuses to consider Perry’s appeal. Which begs the question — why?

Let’s break it down. Perry tells heartwarming stories infused with family, faith, hopefulness — and hokey slapstick. Sure, the characters may be deeply flawed like the combustible Madea, Perry’s signature role. But the movies wrap with a reminder of forgiveness and fortitude. We shall overcome — if we drop by church on Sundays and love one another.

Last year’s comedy First Sunday could be considered an attempt at Perry-style humor. It didn’t pull in Perry style numbers, but its $37 million haul is more than this year’s big-budget actioner “The International” ($25 million).

Guess which feature has a better chance of turning a profit?

Hollywood has a hard time dealing with spirituality. Screenwriters play the religion card to spice up a horror film dealing with possession or the occult. Usually, when religion does come up in a film, it’s used as a scapegoat or explanation for a character’s wicked bent.

Last year’s Snow Angels offers a perfect example. Sam Rockwell’s character, a divorced father slipping down a seriously demented slope, is a Born Again type whose religious fervor mirrors his emotional descent.

The industry had no problem creating Religulous, Bill Maher’s 2008 screed against every organized faith he could point his finger at.

Hollywood ignores these examples of audience-friendly features at its own peril. And, more often, works against its better interests when it comes time to green light a project.

The movies have gone to battle against the Iraq War for years now, and the industry is still licking its wounds from the bloody box office results. Every anti-war film has flopped, often in dramatic fashion, proving audiences simply don’t have the stomach, or the appetite, for films demeaning the war effort or the soldiers fighting it.

So what happened at the recent Sundance Film Festival, the indie world’s biggest event? IFC Films snapped up the rights to In the Loop, a new anti-war comedy starring James Gandolfini.

Independent studios are suffering badly these days. A few have closed up shop in recent years, while others release films that can’t even crack the million dollar mark at the box office. So why copy a genre almost guaranteed to flop?

It all goes back to ideology — what other reason could there be to explain it all? It would be noble to say the studios behind films admired their craft, their ability to entertain and enlighten.

Maybe In the Loop is a terrific anti-war statement deserving of an audience. Perhaps.

But many actors and directors, including some of the bigger names in the industry, often battle for years to get their small, literate projects off the ground. There’s simply no market for them, they’re told. They’re not commercial enough.

So it’s not simply a matter of integrity. It’s a belief system that helps one movie get made, and another linger for years if it every gets a run date.

That means spiritual films too often don’t have a prayer at the Cineplex.