For the second time in a week, I am about to get on an airplane and head out to the Los Angeles area, which means testing the battery life on my iPod video again. But these trips also allow me to talk to people who care about what goes on in Hollywood. Which brings me to a story I have been meaning to mention on the blog for more than a week. I am referring to that Variety report by Steven Zeitchik about the ongoing quest in Hollywood to learn how to sell more tickets to people who go to church. The story opened with an interesting image that I, for one, am tempted to believe is literal:
Two years after "The Passion of the Christ" fueled $600 million in global B.O., Hollywood is discovering that faith is harder than it looks.
To support the growing genre of faith-based movies, the industry has embraced an ever-growing set of guidelines described by some as the Passion Playbook. Among its edicts: Thou shalt woo the Bible Belt. Court the favor of local pastors. Avoid major media if they might send the wrong message.
Now Hollywood professionals -- like politicians -- can turn just about anything into a focus-group topic that produces a set of talking points. Does anyone doubt that multiple PR or market-research firms have turned out some expensive memos that, in effect, claim to be the "Passion Playbook"? I am sure there are church-related groups that are doing the same thing.
So can someone please send me copies of some of these things?
All kinds of people think they can pull off the Passion formula and, clearly, some of them are nuts. Take, for example, the people who produced Jesus Camp. Remember that controversy? They did hire a top faith-based PR pro in Larry Ross, best known for his Billy Graham work. They did special church screenings. They actually thought that this movie was going to appeal to the very people it attacked.
Meanwhile, you have the FoxFaith people and that Gener8Xion Entertainment crowd. And, as Variety noted, you have Anonymous Content manager Adam Krentzman setting up a fund that will finance three or four low-budget Christian-themed movies a year, what he called "Hit-you-over-the-head, Jesus-loves-you kind of films." Speaking of which, the $100,000 Facing the Giants is still out there and has made $8.2 million or so.
But the interesting case study to watch is the Dec. 1 New Line release called The Nativity Story, which, as The New York Times put it, is an open attempt to land the Passion audience. But the more interesting side of this movie -- other than the smashing performance of Oscar Isaac as Joseph -- is the story behind the people who made it.
Let me see if I can piece together a few of the most interesting parts of that story:
In many ways, the movie is testament (no pun intended) to the profoundly changed attitudes in Hollywood toward religion as mainstream entertainment, which this is certainly intended to be. And it is attracting some strange bedfellows. ... The film's screenwriter, Mike Rich, is a practicing Christian from Portland, Ore., who has written sports movies like "The Rookie."
. . . And something else was shifting among certain Hollywood insiders and decision makers. Marty Bowen, a Harvard-educated partner at United Talent Agency, with clients like the screenwriters Charlie Kaufman (who named his obnoxious agent Marty in "Adaptation") and Larry McMurtry ("Brokeback Mountain"), took a close look at his life and decided he wasn't happy.
. . . Coincidentally, one of Mr. Bowen's closest friends in Hollywood, the producer Wyck Godfrey, was going through a similar period of self-scrutiny. Mr. Godfrey, a former executive at New Line Cinema, had been president of Davis Entertainment, helping to produce big, commercial studio movies like "Daddy Day Care," "I, Robot" and "Alien vs. Predator."
. . . The two decided to team up and produce movies that were meaningful to them and would speak to the heartland communities in which they grew up. Mr. Bowen came from a traditional Roman Catholic family in Texas, where he was an altar boy and his parents served as lectors at Mass. Mr. Godfrey was raised in a charismatic Christian church in east Tennessee, where parishioners, he said, spoke in tongues and were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Both had strayed far from their roots to Hollywood Babylon.
Now that's an interesting story in and of itself.
But note this: If anyone is going to be able to create a "Passion Playbook" that is worth the paper it is printed on, it's almost certainly going to be talented Hollywood professionals who -- for a host of valid reasons, personal and professional -- choose to make quality movies for a massive, mainstream audience.
However, I still want a copy of some of the memos behind all of this.
Top photo from Church of the Masses.