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Hollywood tries to win Christians' faith

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Randall Wallace didn't expect a rock-star reception when he went on the road to promote his faith-based drama "Heaven Is for Real" ahead of its Easter-weekend release.

Yet at the First Assembly of God Church in Phoenix, 9,000 congregants greeted the filmmaker with a standing ovation. A few days later, 11,000 boisterous students packed a convocation in the sports arena at Liberty University, a Christian college in Lynchburg, Va., where Wallace, best known for writing the 1995 battle biopic "Braveheart" and directing the equestrian drama "Secretariat," spoke about "Heaven Is for Real."

Recent faith-based and Bible-inspired films such as "Noah," "Son of God," and "God's Not Dead" have galvanized Hollywood with robust showings at the box office. One analyst dubbed 2014 "the year of the biblical movie." But with the surge of major movie studios, marquee stars and prestige filmmakers lining up to shoot faith-based projects, Hollywood is finding it isn't always easy to usher viewers from the church pew to the multiplex.

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Religious moviegoers may be actively searching out more spiritually engaging content, but they remain on high alert for perceived distortions of biblical doctrine or any attempt at a bait and switch.

"There's been a lot of effort to market to what they call the faith-based community," Wallace said. "People have gone out to argue to churches that some movie is faith-based or relevant when it's got nothing to do with what the churches are about. Those ministers view this approach like spam in their mailbox."

Nevertheless, persuading religious leaders to talk up the movies in a church setting as a means of sparking larger conversations about spiritual uplift has become a top priority in creating the kind of pre-release awareness that can lead to massive ticket sales.

The strategic marketing and publicity firm Grace Hill Media has applied that tactic to marketing films as diverse as "The Blind Side," "Dolphin Tale" and "Les Misérables" to the faith community.

"We pioneered taking clips from movies and partnering them with detailed sermon outlines, illustrations and resource materials that pastors could utilize at their choosing," said Jonathan Bock, founder and president of Grace Hill Media.

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Many in attendance at Wallace's church events were enticed by "Heaven Is for Real's" source material: the bestselling 2010 memoir by Christian pastor Todd Burpo subtitled "A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back."

"This movie generates so much positive reaction, our thought was, 'Let's go out and show it in as many places as we can,'" Wallace said. "The most immediate place where you can raise huge audience interest has been in megachurches and those tend to be evangelical and even Pentecostal. Where people have big emotion. Great music. Real commitment. Great passion."

Still, Wallace — who studied religion at Duke University and attended seminary — never lost sight of certain realities that are slowly turning into a kind of gospel across the film business. Namely, that it's a mistake to treat Christian filmgoers as a monolithic audience by marketing movies to them with a "preachy" approach.

Bock agrees that there is no single surefire method to reaching churchgoing viewers. "This is not a one-size-fits-all proposition," Bock cautions. "You're talking about an audience of people that is enormous and covers every demographic there is."

The latest evidence that buzz from the pulpit pays dividends is "God's Not Dead," an independently produced Christian drama that cost less than $3 million but surpassed all industry expectations by grossing an impressive $35 million in just three weeks of release.

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"All these different churches gave it their seal of approval," said David A.R. White, a producer of "God's Not Dead" and co-founder of Pure Flix Entertainment, the film's distributor.

That happened because Pure Flix set up screenings for 8,000 pastors in the two months leading up to the film's theatrical debut.

"Some people say, 'You're losing a lot of money with the pre-screenings.' But for us," White said, "the pastors are the gatekeepers to the church body. If they believe in what we're doing, they can talk about it from the pulpit."

DeVon Franklin is a producer of "Heaven Is for Real" who also serves as the senior vice president of production at Columbia Pictures with a sideline as a preacher with a dedicated following. He emphasized that the audience of nearly 200 million Americans who self-identify as Christians and go to church at least once a month has grown weary of being seen as a niche concern by Hollywood.

"We don't want to be pandered to," Franklin said. "When there's a movie that can be in alignment with our faith and be an inspiration, that's a movie we want to know about and support. At the same time, we don't want to be treated like we're from some other planet. We're interested in 'Captain America' just like we're interested in 'Heaven Is for Real.'"

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When it came to Paramount Pictures' $130-million biblical epic "Noah," the problem leading up to its March 28 release wasn't a perception of pandering. An initial backlash among conservative commentators underscored the perils a studio can face in releasing a movie that takes artistic liberties with its scriptural source material.

An early script draft by Darren Aronofsky, the Oscar-nominated writer-director behind such surreal and disquieting dramas as "Black Swan" and "Requiem for a Dream," wound up in the hands of a conservative blogger who, sight-unseen, castigated the filmmaker's intended depiction of the great flood as a "political propaganda piece for environmentalism." From there, audiences at test screenings last summer revealed shock at the movie's stark tone.

"People were coming in with only the preconceived notions of Noah, which was that it's a kids' story," said Bock, who worked on a campaign to market "Noah." "In Darren's movie, it's four minutes of animals."

More damaging, in the month before "Noah's" release, Faith Driven Consumer — a Christian group known for petitioning the A&E network to reinstate "Duck Dynasty" regular Phil Robertson after his suspension for comments about homosexuals — posted a survey indicating 98% of more than 5,000 religious respondents were unhappy with "Noah" and Hollywood's handling of biblical material in general.

The studio disputed the legitimacy of that survey and went into damage control by screening "Noah" at gatherings for thousands of twenty- and thirtysomething Christian community leaders across the country, including the Hillsong Conference in Atlanta and Catalyst West in Irvine. Former ambassador to the Vatican Raymond Flynn and Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, eventually gave the movie a crucial co-sign, praising the educational possibilities presented by "Noah."

"When we reached out to legitimate, respected leaders in the Christian community, we saw a very consistent response: 'This is a compelling film. It's art. It's not literal. And there's a place in the dialogue about religion for art,'" said Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount.

Last month, "Noah" opened as the No. 1 movie in the country, beating box-office expectations with a $44-million debut weekend. And the film has performed well internationally, taking in more than $180 million worldwide. Another unexpected outcome: For the week of "Noah's" release, YouVersion, a mobile app for Bible scriptures, reported a 300% increase in U.S. users opening the Noah story in Genesis.

For Phil Cooke, a Christian media consultant and television and movie producer with a PhD in theology, any lingering sensitivity in the faith community to Hollywood's handling of biblical fare comes down to the question of fair representation.

"If Hollywood does a film featuring a gay character, the gay community wants that character not to be a caricature. They want it to be real," said Cooke. "If it's an environmentalist, a feminist, whatever the special interest group, they want to be portrayed accurately and it's totally understandable. In the same way, Christians want Bible stories to be biblically accurate."

He paused before adding: "Although you can't be 100% biblically accurate because nobody knows what happened inside Noah's ark!"

chris.lee@latimes.com

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