The real 'Exodus': media coverage that goes beyond the dollar signs

Ridley Scott mustered $140 million for Exodus, his epic on the biblical Passover story, only to see it reap a mediocre $24.5 million last weekend. But the real-life plagues struck media reports: plagues of blindness and deafness to the religious and spiritual causes for the tepid opening receipts.

But we'll start with the two bright spots I saw.

To my surprise, the best report appears in Variety, not your typically spiritual journal. Its 500-word story reads like an indepth, but refreshingly without blatant opinion or obvious attempts to steer our viewpoint. Its three expert sources prove the points of the article.

Noting that this was supposed to be "the year that Hollywood found religion," writer Brent Lang traces the uneven record for faith-based films in 2014. Big-budget spectacles, like Exodus and Noah, have stumbled, while smaller films like God's Not Dead and Heaven is for Real have triumphed. And Lang asks his sources why:

With 77% of Americans identifying as Christians, Hollywood sees a big audience for these kind of films.
“The Bible is a hot commodity,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “The secret is to start small, keep the budget manageable and get into grassroots marketing.”

Nor is this a new trend. Variety notes that The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's 2004 film, grossed $612 million on a $30 million budget. And its opening weekend reaped $83.8 million.

Again, an expert source explains:

Christian-themed films without the plagues and floods also largely avoided the questions of biblical accuracy that bedeviled the Old Testament adaptations.
“Hollywood needs to do what they do for any market segment,” said Chris Stone, founder of the market research firm Faith Driven Consumer. “Just as they would for a Hispanic or African-American or LGBT market, they need to have an intimate understanding of our group and need to engage us where we are and tell our story in a way that resonates with us.”

For runner-up in postmortems, I nominate the Los Angeles Times, which made Exodus the top 38 percent in a weekend roundup. The rest of the article is about other seasonal films, like Mockingjay and Penguins of Madagascar.

The Times starts with a positive spin, reporting that the $24.5 million opening met expectations of the studio, 20th Century Fox.  Like a few other media, it also reports on the diversity of the Exodus audience, with sizable blocs of Latinos, African Americans and people under 25.

But the article adds that with its $140 million production budget, Exodus lags behind the much smaller Son of God, which opened in February at $25.6 million -- on a $22 million budget. The Times reports also that Exodus got a B-minus from an audience polling firm.

For the "whys," the Times asks Stone but doesn't get as strong an answer as did Variety:

“Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus’ represents a strong departure from the Bible and will likely fail to resonate with millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” Chris Stone, founder of Faith Driven Consumer, said in a statement. “Ultimately, the movie misses the central point of the story.”

Still, both of those stories run several lengths ahead of what I read in most secular media. Some, like IGN, note simply that Exodus opened weaker than Noah and Son of God.

Oddly, some articles, like the International Business Times, identify the director as "Ridley Scott of Blade Runner fame." A closer comparison would be Kingdom of Heaven, Scott's 2005 epic about cynical Christian crusaders and righteous Muslim warriors.

Many media, like the otherwise insightful Wall Street Journal, make a big deal of Exodus earning more last weekend than Mockingjay, the third film in the Hunger Games trilogy. This despite the fact that Mockingjay has grossed an estimated $277.4 million over four weeks.

CBS News does take the time to quote a "media analyst," Paul Dergarabedian: "I think Hollywood is learning that putting epic, biblical stories on the big screen comes at a pretty heavy price. It's not easy to do this." CBS doesn't have him explain that cost, though. Just in dollars? Audience expectations? Fidelity to the original story? Going outside the comfort zone of secular films? Other?

The Inquisitr concentrates on the racial/ethnic flap kicked up by Scott and his film:

The talent and artistic choices of director Ridley Scott are where Exodus: Gods and Kings has taken the bulk of it’s criticism. While the characters in Exodus: Gods and Kings are all either Egyptian or Hebrew, the bulk of the cast is comprised of Caucasian actors. There are some actors of color, most notably Ben Kingsley, almost all of the female cast, and many of the extras, but none of them have a substantial part to play or get much screen time.

The article has little on the religious reaction to an inherently religious film. Although the unbylined story suggests there were more problems than "racially insensitive casting," little else is discussed at length here.

Maybe the tone-deaf majority of the media could use a little Variety in their lives.

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