By JIM BECKERMAN
THE RECORD (HACKENSACK N.J.)
"Saw III." "Running With Scissors." "Conversations With God."
Which of these things is not like the others?
If it seems odd to see a frankly religious-themed movie like "Conversations With God" (it opened on 100 screens Friday) side-by-side in the multiplex with a movie about a mad killer and a dysfunctional family, get used to it.
Faith-based films, once relegated to church basements and hired halls, are increasingly getting mainstream distribution as Hollywood discovers that the Lord's business may indeed be compatible with business-as-usual.
"People are hungry, deeply hungry, for this kind of entertainment," says Stephen Simon, director-producer of "Conversations With God."
"Facing the Giants," which opened Sept. 29 (a coach finds God and success on the playing field), "One Night With the King," which opened Oct. 13 (sounds like a bodice-ripper, but it's actually the biblical story of Esther) and "The Nativity Story," opening Dec. 1, are other examples of an unusually busy fall and winter for faith-based cinema.
So, arguably, is "Color of the Cross," which also opened last week -- which plays to the faithful with its subject matter (the crucifixion) but is also liable to ruffle some conservative feathers (Jesus, played by Jean-Claude LaMarre, is black).
Not a new concept
Christian-themed movies aren't new, of course: Frankly proselytizing movies like "The Cross and the Switchblade" and the "Left Behind" films have always found an audience.
But never such a potentially large audience.
These films are not being marketed by hole-in-the-wall outfits, but by mainstream companies -- including Goldwyn ("Conversations With God," "Facing the Giants") and Twentieth Century Fox ("Color of the Cross"). Last month, Fox launched FoxFaith as a consumer brand.
"We're in the business of providing entertainment to a variety of audiences, both mass and niche," says 20th Century Fox's Steven Feldstein, who oversees FoxFaith.
For several years, this division existed quietly as Fox's "spiritual" DVD marketing arm; their success marketing "Passion of the Christ" DVDs in North America led to their branding last month and to new forays into theatrical entertainment ("One Night With the King" is being partly marketed by FoxFaith).
"We recognized that this was an under-served market," Feldstein says.
Not since the glory days of Cecil B. DeMille ("The Ten Commandments") have so many religious movies been aimed squarely at the mainstream.
"This is a new trend," says Doug Phillips, founder of the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival. "It would not have been true two years ago. It's unusual. I don't know if it will be unusual in the future."
Making their way in
Ever since 2004's "Passion of the Christ" stunned Hollywood by bringing in 400 million, there has been a slow, stealthy infiltration of religious films into the gory, sexy, cynical movie mainstream.
Some of these films are overtly Christian. Others, like "Conversations With God," are merely "spiritual" -- meaning that, as in a modern mega-church, all faiths are welcome.
"I think there's been a lot of dissatisfaction with Hollywood over the past 10 years, by a huge segment of the audience," says Simon, whose "Conversations With God" is the true story of a best-selling inspirational writer (Henry Czerny) who beat homelessness and joblessness, and now -- supposedly -- gets his worldly wisdom directly from The Big Guy Upstairs.
"When I found out he had been a homeless guy living in the park with a broken neck collecting cans, I realized it would be a wonderful filmic metaphor for everyone who has gone through a dark night of the soul," says Simon, who quit the Hollywood rat race after producing several films ("Somewhere in Time," "What Dreams May Come") with a spiritual bent, but always after protracted battles with the Hollywood brass.
In 2004, he launched Spiritual Cinema Circle, a sort of Netflix for the soul, which sends four movies a month to subscribers -- some produced by Simon, some by others. "Conversations With God" is Spiritual Cinema Circle's first film to be released to theaters.
"I think it's terrific that people of faith are going to see movies, because it's going to generate a lot more of them being made," Simon says.