Highly secularized showbiz moguls suddenly realized that religion could pay off when Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ” posted $370 million in box office. That remains history’s highest domestic take for an R-rated movie and tops for any Christian-themed film, beating out the three C.S. Lewis “Narnia” stories.
Woodenly scripted cheapos like 2001’s “Left Behind” that did poorly ($4.2 million total box office) no doubt dampened studio interest. Even after Gibson, Hollywood seems generally uncertain how to capitalize on this market, and treatments of faith are too often either phony or snarky. Hollywood insiders have struggled to find the magic faith-based niche formula.
But something important may be developing. Note that #5 in the Christian genre’s all-time box office is “War Room,” about the ineffable power of prayer to change lives for the better. It grossed $67.8 million last year. Then there’s the current film “Risen,” timed for the lead-up to Easter. It earned a healthy $11.8 million with its opening last weekend and ranked #3 in the market (all data in this item are from www.boxofficemojo.com).
Both films come from Sony Pictures’ Affirm Films subsidiary, which has received surprisingly scant mainstream media coverage and has obvious potential for a good story.
Sony launched Affirm in 2007 with the mandate of “producing, acquiring, and marketing" films that uplift and inspire. Senior Vice President Rich Peluso, formerly with EMI Christian Music, says Affirm works “the space between faith and entertainment.” Its catalog to date lists 48 films. Christian feature films have been taken out of church basements to standard cinemas, yet can later earn perennial profits through ministry and home viewings -- for which Affirm cleverly provides thorough discussion guides.
Things got rolling for Affirm with “Fireproof,” about a fire captain played by Kirk Cameron (2008, $33.5 million gross), followed by other inspirational features like “Soul Surfer” (2011, $$43.9 million), “Courageous” (2011, $34.5 million ), “Heaven Is For Real” (2014, $91.4 million), and “War Room.”
The current “Risen” is a breakthrough for Affirm -- and perhaps for the Christian market over-all. It’s the company’s first large-budget film, costing perhaps $20 million, though not big-budget like past sword-and-sandals epics satirized in another current flick, “Hail, Caesar!” This is also Affirm’s first release under Sony's venerable Columbia Pictures logo, and features name actors led by Joseph Fiennes (Screen Actors Guild best actor for “Shakespeare in Love”).
No sermonette, “Risen” dramatizes the days after the tomb of the crucified Jesus Christ was mysteriously discovered to be empty. In weighing the plausibility of Jesus’ resurrection from the grave, the plot devised by Paul Aiello echoes Frank Morison’s classic “Who Moved the Stone” (1935) and N.T. Wright’s scholarly “The Resurrection of the Son of God”(2003). Secular critics, however, were reminded more of TV crime procedurals like “Columbo” and “CSI.”
Fiennes plays a ranking Roman soldier who supervises Jesus’ crucifixion, secures the tomb with an imperial seal, is dismayed when the tomb is found empty, and follows frantic orders from Pontius Pilate to locate Jesus’ body quickly lest belief in his resurrection stir an insurrection. Thus Aiello turns the “greatest story ever told” inside out, pursuing the truth from the viewpoint of both ancient and 21stCentury skeptics.
Reviews tend to be tepid. The Los Angeles Times saw “an original and inventive way to illuminate the well-known story” that “rebrands” it but will gain little glory beyond Easter reruns on cable. “Variety” downplayed a “pleasantly plodding New Testament noir” that’s inevitably robbed of any element of surprise.
The “Hollywood Reporter” sniffed that the film lacks “much of interest to the secular crowd.” To the Religion Guy, that misses the gamesmanship of trying to puzzle out one of history’s great mysteries, which should intrigue any non-believer with an open mind. The believers will also enjoy the game -- and should watch closely at the empty tomb for a glimpse of the Shroud of Turin!