Hollywood's Bible movie craze

by Kent Covington
Posted 10/28/14, 12:28 pm

There was a time when the Bible played a starring role in the movie business. In 1956, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston, became one of the most celebrated films of Hollywood’s early history, earning an estimated $128 million. Adjusted for inflation, that would be a box-office take of over a billion dollars today.

In the decades to follow, however, Hollywood largely ignored continued demand for Bible-based movies. For many years, the role of the Bible in popular films was relegated to movie villains’ quoting of scripture, like Samuel L. Jackon’s hitman Jules Winnfield did in Pulp Fiction. Bible-quoting killers and negative stereotypes of Christians are still prevalent on both the big and small screen. But Hollywood’s long Bible blackout appears to be over.

The Passion of the Christ in 2004 didn’t exactly open the floodgates for a new generation of biblical films, but it did, at least, open quite a few eyes. Passion, which was made on a production budget of $25 million, went on to gross more than $600 million worldwide. This year, Hollywood went all the way back to the book of Genesis in search of its next blockbuster. Noah, starring Russell Crowe, flooded box-office coffers with $360 million dollars. And the small-budget film Son of God, also released this year, also was considered a financial success.

Capping the Bible’s big return to the big screen in 2014 isRidley Scott’s take on the story of Moses, Exodus: Gods and Kings. The epic starring Christian Bale hits theaters in December. A half-century has passed since Charlton Heston’s Moses led the Israelites through a parted sea, and it’s been a decade since the Passion of the Christ was released. Why, after all this time, is Hollywood once again looking to Scripture for script ideas?

Columnist John Nolte says part of the reason is Hollywood’s desire to tap into the buying power of conservative Christians. The shift is also internal.

“But over the years, I think they’ve become more tolerant, and I think more people in Hollywood have come out as Christians and sort of changed the culture there,” Nolte said. He said he expects movies—including the upcoming remake of the Roman-era epic Ben-Hur—to show more respect to the God of the Bible in the coming years.

“Artistically, I liked the movie Noah, but I thought it was an anti-God movie at its core, and it was actually sort of repulsive,” Nolte said. “I don’t think Exodus is going to do that, and I’m sure Ben-Hur isn’t going to do that. Ben-Hur is actually supposed to be even more based on the life of Christ than the Charlton Heston movie was.”

Hollywood’s openness to biblical stories comes along with major changes to the movie business. With home streaming services like Netflix munching away at movie theaters’ profits, the industry has to think way outside the box to stay relevant.

“We’re never going to lose movie theaters because everybody loves the experience of going to a great movie, but what’s going to happen is that the movies that are going to play in the theater are going to be made for the big screen, [like] Terminator, Transformers, X-Men,” Nolte said. “Comedies and dramas are probably going to go straight to streamers or video-on-demand and just go around the entire theater experience altogether.”

Listen to Kent Covington and John Nolte discuss biblical films and the movie business on The World and Everything in It: