I ran into two colleagues in the parking garage after a screening of the new comedy Moms' Night Out, which opens Friday. It wasn't exactly Deep Throat, but we were intrigued. "Did you know going in that this was a God movie?" we asked one another.
None of us had. The trailer makes it look like sprightly family fun: Three nice ladies go out for a nice dinner, and nice mayhem ensues. But a few minutes in, one of the ladies (Patricia Heaton, the likeable star of the TV shows Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle) is revealed to be a pastor's wife, and the other two go to her church. Next thing you know, people are praying, the pastor's wife is saying things like, "God helps us find purpose in the mayhem," and a kindly biker dude named Bones, played by the country singer Trace Adkins, passes along the message that Jesus holds us in his arms. The audience in my theatre chuckled throughout, but my colleagues and I felt the marketing campaign was working in mysterious ways.
In a phone interview on Wednesday, I asked Heaton, who identifies as a Christian and is also a producer on the film, about the campaign, and she said she wasn't privy to the strategy. But part of her decision to be a producer was to ensure that the film's faith element was "as organic as possible" to its story: "Some movies are totally focused on faith audiences, and a lot of those are to me more sermons than movies," she said. "If I wanted to do sermons, I would be a pastor myself. I think every movie has a message, but I didn't want this one to be blatant. I wanted to tell a story and let the audience draw the message from that."
It's hardly the first time God has had a starring (if uncredited) role at the movies this year. When 2014's box figures are totalled, it's likely that the Prince of Peace is going to be one of the top earners. First up, in February, was Son of God, a Jesus biopic that cut together a mix of new and used footage from the History Channel's hit miniseries The Bible, which attracted more than 11 million viewers a week when it aired, and is the top-selling miniseries DVD ever. Its husband-and-wife producers Mark Burnett (Survivor) and Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel) could give seminars in savvy marketing. At every step, they consulted with religious leaders, including evangelical pastor Rick Warren, who attracts 20,000 people (!) every week to his Saddleback Church. They hired a Colorado-based company, Compassion International, which purchased group-sale tickets and gave them away to churches in 40 U.S. cities. They cut versions in Spanish and Korean, and appeared on every talk show known to man. Made for $22-million (U.S.), their film grossed $59-million – a solid hit.
A month later, God's Not Dead arrived, in which a philosophy student debates his professor (Kevin Sorbo, who acts almost exclusively in religious projects) over the existence of the Almighty. It cost $2-million, and has grossed $53-million.
A week after that came Noah, with Russell Crowe in the title role. Director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), who is Jewish, told The Hollywood Reporter that he was determined to make a Noah for everyone: a fantastical Middle-earth style world for non-believers, that still hewed closely enough to the biblical version to satisfy those who take the story as gospel. "I had no problem completely honouring and respecting everything in the Bible and accepting it as truth," he said.
Noah's studio, Paramount, ran parallel marketing campaigns, one faith-based, one mainstream action. Paramount also hired a faith-based consultant, Grace Hill Media – defined on its website as "a dynamic, full-service PR and marketing firm originally established to reach an enormous and underserved population: religious America" – which conducted special screenings for religious leaders and groups. Though some disapproved of the film's dark tone, and Paramount considered recutting it, Aronofsky ultimately released the cut he wanted. It's grossed $97-million.
In mid-April came Heaven is for Real, based on the 2010 bestseller about a pastor's son who awakens from a near-death experience and claims he's been to heaven. (It stars Greg Kinnear as the pastor.) There's no shying away from the Christian playbook here: There are prayer circles, shots of heaven (clouds, shiny angels, dead relatives hugging), and even a cameo from Jesus himself. It's grossed $54-million so far.
Heaven is for Real was released – as is Moms' Night Out – by a division of Sony called Affirm, which on its website calls itself "the industry leader in faith-based film," launched in 2007 to "produce, acquire and market films which inspire, uplift and entertain audiences." Its titles are available for church groups to rent, and its website features extensive discussion guides. Affirm's hits include two movies from 2011: Courageous, about cops struggling with their faith, which cost $2-million to make and grossed more than $34-million; and Soul Surfer, the true story of a Christian surfer who lost an arm in a shark attack, which cost $18-million and grossed $44-million. (Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid played the surfer's parents; Kevin Sorbo popped up here, too. I saw it. I cried.) Affirm is also releasing a faith-based football movie, When the Game Stands Tall, in August.
And God's not done. Due Oct. 3 is the action film Left Behind, about a commercial pilot (Nicholas Cage) steering his plane in the aftermath of the Rapture. On Dec. 12 – awards season time – Christian Bale, as Moses, will lead the Israelites out of Egypt in Exodus, a big-budget epic from Ridley Scott (Gladiator). (According to The Hollywood Reporter, Scott, an avowed agnostic, "has chosen an unconventional depiction of God in the film.")
Other faith-based projects in the pipeline include Mary, with Ben Kingsley as King Herod; a Cain and Abel movie directed by Will Smith; a Pontius Pilate picture starring Brad Pitt as the titular villain; the absurdest Helena Handbag, directed by Kevin Smith (in which, according to IMDB, "Mankind teams up with Hell to save existence from extinction at the hands of a rapturing giant Jesus"); and The Leftovers, an HBO drama, also about the Rapture, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta (whose previous books Election and Little Children were made into films). And let's not forget This is the End, a Rapture comedy from Seth Rogen, which grossed more than $100-million in 2013.
So why is God so hot right now? Many pundits speculate that Hollywood is running out of comic books, and has turned to the Bible, which is action-packed, for fresh heroes. Heaton, who is as frank as she is warm, has her own ideas. "There's clearly a hunger for people wanting some deeper meaning or hope in the world today, where there are a lot of terrible, difficult things going on," she says. "Hope that this is not all there is, and that there is a purpose to the struggles that you go through.
"And on a purely economic level, there's money to be made," she continues. "That's the No. 1 goal in Hollywood. Artistry is a close No. 2, but if nobody sees your beautifully artistic film, what's the point?"
She admits that money was a motivating factor for doing Moms' Night Out. "I'm not kidding when I say, I'm a person who gets one job offer a year, and I always say yes, because I've got four kids to put through college." Amen to that.