The recent headline in Variety said it all: “Box Office: ‘Ben-Hur’ Flops with $11.4 Million.”
One more “swords and sandals” epic with Jesus content needing a resurrection after its first weekend in the theaters.
One more chapter in a mystery that has been a head-scratcher in Hollywood for decades. Why do some faith-focused movies make gazillions of dollars and become classics and others trip over the threshold at the theater and fall flat?
Millions of people still watch the original “Ten Commandments” on ABC television annually — the one in which a young Charlton Heston parts the Red Sea like he has done since the movie was released in 1956. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has brought in more than $700 million since its 2004 release — not including DVD sales, which were worth $30 million for 20th Century Fox in the first month.
Yet, the string of faith-driven bombs is equally impressive. DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg did an incredible amount of homework in the production of what he thought would be an animated blockbuster, “The Prince of Egypt.” He interviewed Christians, Jews, Muslims and even Egyptians to get input on the final cut — and he listened to them. It didn’t matter. The movie opened to less than $15 million, although it did go on to do better.
Then there was David Putnam’s 1981 “Chariots of Fire,” which was stunningly successful with believers. It didn’t do well at the box office but won the Oscar for best picture. Go figure.
Why can’t Hollywood figure this out?
If there is one axiomatic principle in Hollywood, it is that no one has figured out all the factors in any movie’s success or failure. As one studio executive said decades ago, “In Hollywood, nobody knows nothin’.”
Then, when you factor in stories from the Bible or stories with faith-focused storylines, you hit another gaping hole of knowledge. In Hollywood, “nobody knows nothin’” about religion or, assuredly, the Bible.
The vast majority of people in entertainment jettisoned any religious notions or practices in college and never went back to them. When Ben Stein wrote his book on Tinseltown values in 1979, “The View from Sunset Boulevard,” he concluded, “In Hollywood, religion is a nonissue.”
By and large, the prevailing worldview in filmland is devoutly secular: God doesn’t even factor into creation or origins. Darwin “proved” that.
Third, Hollywood doesn’t know anything about devout Christians or, for that matter, Orthodox Jews. I spent 35 years explaining evangelicals to media executives in some of the top film studios and TV companies on the planet. After all, I argued to them, any constituency numbering as many as 100 million and spending $2.1 trillion a year should be worth understanding. When I deconstructed the evangelical community, its demographics and its values, media executives responded like I was describing Martians. They were stunned to discover that these “born againers” were not just little old ladies in the Bible Belt — they actually run Fortune 100 companies, coach Super Bowl championship football teams and even, sometimes, occupy the White House. Even Orthodox Jews are viewed as inscrutable to the many Jewish power people in media.
Four, Hollywood, with few exceptions, has a prevailing worldview in which God and faith are completely irrelevant. Creative work, if it does nothing else, reflects two things — the creator’s personal character and worldview. One does not, typically, create content or promote messages in conflict with personal values and understanding of life.
Then, in this age, what I call philosophical correctness — because it encompasses far more than one’s politics — dominates. If carbon emissions, not some higher power or even Mother Nature, are the deciding factor in global warming, what’s all this nonsense about divinely appointed seasons, wind currents and cyclic temperature patterns?
Finally, Hollywood doesn’t know what people of faith want — and don’t want — in entertainment. In 1988, in a totally boneheaded move, Universal Pictures released “The Last Temptation of Christ,” including a scene in which Jesus had sex with Mary Magdalene. Universal executives expressed fear and shock when 25,000 Christians showed up at the gates to beg the studio not to release the film. They released it anyway.
Even if formulas for success in faith-focused movies remain elusive, there are some things Hollywood could learn — if they wanted to.
• Larry W. Poland, Ph.D., founded Mastermedia International to consult with leaders in global media about the faith community, specializing in evangelicals. His 35 years of quietly building trust relationships at the top executive levels of entertainment have provided a unique perspective on faith and film. He published his perspectives in his book “Chasm: Crossing the Divide Between Hollywood and People of Faith.”