Can $350 Million Help Hollywood Find Religion?

Industry insiders weigh in on whether or not 'Godsploitation' will be next film trend.

As Mel Gibson's controversial film epic "The Passion of the Christ" speeds past $350 million in domestic box-office sales to become the biggest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, many are wondering if its success will spur a flood of religious movies from Hollywood. After all, the movie industry has never seen a successful bandwagon it couldn't jump on. So, is "Godsploitation" the next film trend?

Pop-culture columnist and film critic Michael Medved has no doubt that audiences are in for more spiritual fare, either from Hollywood studios looking to cash in or from other spiritually minded stars­ like Gibson ­who will create their own projects.

" 'The Passion' sends a message that you can take a risk and triumph commercially and in terms of public response," Medved said (see " 'Passion' Lays Siege To 'The Alamo' Over Easter Weekend"). "Its success will encourage actors or directors in Hollywood to express their own religious interests. And it shows that if you're allied with many Americans, risking controversy and condemnation is not necessarily the end of your prospect for success."

In fact, many insiders have said production companies and studios are currently scrambling for projects meant to serve moviegoers that came out for "The Passion." The one major-studio, big-ticket item that was cited by all is a film based on the C.S. Lewis book "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," a popular children's fantasy heavy with Christian themes, which Walden Media is creating with Disney Studios for release in 2005.

But others working in the film industry dismiss the notion that "The Passion" will change the movie industry's consciousness toward religious films. Some believe the flick's success is a historical anomaly, resting on Gibson's popularity, the controversy surrounding the film, and the universal nature of the Crucifixion story. They say no one seems to know how to recreate the pull "The Passion" has with its audience, many members of which rarely watch Hollywood movies. For that reason, says one script agent at a high-profile talent agency, it's unlikely that religious films will become a genre on the scale of sports films, horror movies or teenybopper flicks. "It's a cyclical business, but ['The Passion'] just came out of nowhere."

Skeptics also point to the fact that other recent successful independent movies, which were expected to set off a gold rush of religious films, did not. Small Christian releases such as 1999's "The Omega Code," which, with its $15.2 million, was the top-grossing independent film of that year, and 2002's animated "Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie," which made over $25 million, came and went without a further stir.

Barbara Nicolosi, executive director of Act One, a writing seminar for Christian filmmakers in Hollywood, says that such criticism misses the point of what separated "The Passion" from those movies.

"Most religious films are just dreadful, because they're not done artistically enough. On the other hand when you can tell a spiritual story well, they become classics, like 'The Passion' or 'Gandhi.' You either make something beautiful or you make propaganda."

Medved agrees: "Make a good movie and they'll come — even if the critics don't like it."

Nicolosi and Medved say that rather than expecting such movies from the Hollywood studio old guard, new artistic religious dramas will come from film companies set up specifically to push a more spiritual agenda. These production groups may become for America's spiritual moviegoers what Disney was to family entertainment: a brand to trust. In the wake of "The Passion," Gibson's Icon Entertainment is reportedly getting ready to make a film based on the Old Testament story of Chanukah. Walden Media, in addition to "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," is developing a film on the life of William Wilberforce, an 18th century British abolitionist who was also an Evangelical Christian.

In the meantime, the one film that may profit from the success and notoriety of "The Passion" in the short term is one unlikely to bring the religious audience flocking back to movie theaters. In late April, Rainbow Films will celebrate the 25th anniversary of "Monty Python's Life of Brian," the British comedy troupe's parody on the life of Christ, by re-releasing it all around the country.