In the beginning, there was "The Bible," the most-watched cable TV show of 2013. Following its flood of faith-inspiring success are three Bible-based movies set to open in theaters this year.
The first, "Son of God," is produced by the married couple who brought "The Bible" to the History Channel and into households across the country — producer Mark Burnett and actress Roma Downey.
"We really believed that people would show up in droves, but 100 million people was a big number," Mr. Burnett said of the 10-hour miniseries' total audience. "Before we knew those results, we'd already started on 'Son of God.'"
The two-hour film, which opens with a quick retelling of the Old Testament before depicting the life of Jesus, is scheduled to be released Feb. 28.
"We know from the success of 'The Bible' series, it encouraged people around the water cooler or around their own kitchen tables to start talking about faith, start talking about God," Miss Downey said. "We hope when 'Son of God' is released that people will be talking about Jesus."
Hollywood appears to be banking on moviegoers' interest in faith and God as it prepares to roll out two big-budget films based on biblical tales. Producer-director-screenwriter Darren Aronofsky's 3-D opus "Noah," starring Oscar winners Russell Crowe as Noah and Anthony Hopkins as his grandfather Methuselah, is due to be released in March. "Exodus," directed by Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale as Moses, is scheduled to be released in December.
Scholars say the time is right for an influx of faith-based movies. They note that an opportunity arises every few years for filmmakers to use cutting-edge technology to capture audiences by telling some of the world's oldest and most intriguing stories.
"Hollywood is hungry for good source material, so it reached back to one of the original treasure troves of ancient civilization that still speaks across the centuries definitely more than the average comic book," said Craig Detweiler, associate professor of communication at Pepperdine University, where he teaches a course on religion and film.
S. Brent Plate, visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, said the upcoming epics about Moses and Noah are the contemporary equivalents to 1956's "Ten Commandments," 1959's "Ben Hur" and 1961's "King of Kings."
"These were big-budget and secular," Mr. Plate said. "Some of the filmmakers and actors professed various levels of faith, but these were not any more devotional films than the new ones."
But for Mr. Burnett, producer of CBS' "Survivor," ABC's "Shark Tank" and NBC's "The Voice," and Miss Downey, a former star of the CBS drama "Touched by an Angel," their latest endeavor is as much about faith as it is commerce — perhaps more so.
"Son of God" was produced on a $22 million budget, a pittance compared with the reported $130 million budget for "Noah." The budget for "Exodus" has not been announced, but with a cast that includes Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley, the film's budget likely will rival that of "Noah."
"Son of God" has no big-name actors, aside from Miss Downey, who portrays Jesus' mother late in the film. Jesus is portrayed by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, reprising the role from "The Bible" miniseries.
The producers have eschewed typical marketing schemes. Churches and faith-based groups, they say, have been buying advance tickets for screenings of "Son of God" as group events and as a springboard for discussion, just as they did 10 years ago for director Mel Gibson's surprise blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ."
"Son of God" has garnered praise from faith leaders such as Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, megachurch pastor Rick Warren and televangelist Joel Osteen.
"We certainly didn't want '14 to go by without a huge experience for America from us," Mr. Burnett said. "'Son of God' is something we started on even before 'The Bible' series. It's the way it should be seen: A big feature film experience."
Noting the modest budget and mostly unknown cast for "Son of God," Mr. Plate of Hamilton College said, "I think it will appeal to those who already profess Christianity but won't make much splash outside those circles. 'Noah' and 'Exodus' will prove much more big sellers and many nonbelievers will attend."
Still, Mr. Gibson's "Passion," which featured a cast of mostly unknowns and required subtitles because its script was in Aramaic, the long-dead language of the era, brought in more than $370 million with its $30 million budget.
Mr. Detweiler said Hollywood has "consistently underestimated" the size and adventurous nature of the faith-friendly audience, and "Son of God" will be the latest test of that segment.
"When we live through a decade of very anxious times, I think we've found that people's interest in ancient and transforming stories endures," he said. "New technologies allow for fresh retellings of a powerful, ancient text like the Gospel. Jesus has proven to be a remarkably portable person who's rediscovered by each generation in new ways."
Regardless of how well "Son of God" plays on the big screen, Miss Downey said, she and her husband have an order for a 12-hour miniseries called "A.D." that "will reset the story at the Crucifixion and follow the remaining disciples and beginnings of the early church." They expect the show to begin airing in autumn 2015.
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