- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2014

Forget buddy flicks, slasher movies and rom-coms.

This year is shaping up to be the year of the faith film, as Hollywood releases a variety of religious-themed movies with hopes of attracting believers and appealing to secular audiences.

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“This year, in a sense, is a test of the genre,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, which measures television and movie viewing statistics. “This year is going to decide, determine, the fate of the faith-based movie. I think it’s the last untapped genre to go mainstream.”

Religious-themed films have long been produced and distributed independently, but what makes this year different is that box-office expectations for faith-based audiences are nearing equal footing with those for mainstream productions.

“It’s no surprise that Hollywood is aiming films at religious crowds in a major way this year,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “Religious moviegoers are a very important part of the population, and they want to see their beliefs and ideals represented in major Hollywood movies. It’s important for Hollywood to really listen to what these crowds want and to not make assumptions.”

Hollywood already is seeing success at the box office:

• “Noah,” a big-budget epic starring Russell Crowe, opened this weekend at $44 million, making it the No. 1 movie in the country despite controversies about its adherence to the biblical story.

“Son of God,” the follow-up to the unexpectedly successful “The Bible” TV miniseries, was produced on a $22 million budget and has earned $56 million since its debut in late February, according to Box Office Mojo, a website that compiles ticket sales.

“God’s Not Dead,” a low-budget independent film, opened in only 800 theaters in late March but made more than $8 million in its opening weekend. Earnings so far have totaled $22 million.

A passel of other faith-based films are on the way.

“Heaven Is for Real,” based on the best-selling book about a child’s near-death experience, is set to open this month.

“Exodus,” a big-budget movie starring Christian Bale is scheduled to hit theaters in December.

A biopic about Mother Teresa also is in the works, as is “Mary, Mother of Christ,” which is set for next year, according to Internet Movie Database.

Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, a religion professor at Greensboro College in North Carolina, said Hollywood “has evidently discovered Christians as a consumer demographic,” but biblical stories have inspired filmmakers for years.

“The Bible has still exerted tremendous influence on art, literature and film in Western culture,” Ms. Burnette-Bletsch said. “Its influence has been felt in innumerable Christ figures and Moses figures. What is ‘The Lion King’ if not the Exodus story?”

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