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'Noah:' Faith-based group, Paramount in biblical battle

MoviesEntertainmentReligion and BeliefConsumersEthicsRussell Crowe

Talk about a Holy War.

Paramount has taken the unusual step of issuing a press release debunking a survey and a resultant Variety story about the faith-based community’s skepticism for the studio’s upcoming  tentpole “Noah.” In a fittingly biblical turn, the drama was upped when the group fired back. But neither side seems to be reading entirely from a good book.

Here’s the back story: On Monday a group called Faith Driven Consumers released a study about the March 28-opening Darren Aronofsky film starring Russell Crowe, noting that “Noah faces rough seas." It cited a figure of 98% of respondents who said that they were “not satisfied” by Hollywood movies with biblical plotlines, specifically mentioning “Noah” in the release. 

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In response, Variety ran a short item under the headline “Survey: Faith-Driven Consumers Dissatisfied with ‘Noah,’ Hollywood Religious Pics.” It contained the lead sentence “Despite its Biblical inspiration, Paramount’s upcoming “Noah” may face some rough seas with religious audiences, according to a new survey by Faith Driven Consumers.” It was mostly an en bloc recitation of the survey, with no embellishments but no qualifiers either.

On Tuesday Paramount cried foul. It issued a release saying that “The survey question that had the 98% response rate did not contain any reference to the film ‘Noah; despite the fact that the Variety reporting implied that it did.”

The studio  then went on to cite research from the Nielsen data group NRG, which it noted had found 83% interest in the movie among “very religious” filmgoers, and a study from the Christian-based Barna Group that said “86% of Christian respondents who are aware of the film  said they would recommend ‘Noah’ to their friends.” 

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But Faith Driven Consumers wasn’t going quietly. After Paramount released its statement, a spokesman told the Hollywood Reporter that the group was sticking to its position, saying  of its survey methodology, "We did everything but speak from a burning bush and say, ‘This is about ‘Noah.”

The truth is there’s a little bit of merit on both sides — and a lot to raise questions about.

The basic premise from Faith Based Consumers was notable if not exactly original: The faith-based community is inherently skeptical about Hollywood adaptations, something that seems both a) logical and b) problematic for Hollywood, as other such releases are on the way, including Ridley Scott’s “Exodus.”

The survey came from a group that has something of a track record, launching a pro-Phil Robertson petition a few months ago. It said it polled 5,000 people for this study. And its basic conclusion was fair enough; it was simply saying that “Noah” is facing a hurdle.

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But one line — a key one — seemed howler-worthy. It said that “98% of faith driven consumers indicate their entertainment needs are not satisfied by ‘Noah,’” a prima facie illogical statement because, surely, nearly none of the respondents have seen “Noah,” and thus are in no position to evaluate whether the movie satisfied any need, entertainment or otherwise.

I understand the feeling that Hollywood has taken a text close to one’s heart and distorted it. (And I’d be interested to get a take from the faith-based community.) It's an important issue, if not a new one (or one restricted to faith-based texts). But the tenor of the objection from the leader of the group was bizarre.

“Faith Driven Consumers are eager to channel their formidable purchasing power toward entertainment choices that resonate with their values, and are keenly interested in the Bible-themed films that Hollywood studios are offering this year. As such, moviemakers are positioned to realize large profits if they are successful in connecting with Faith Driven Consumers,” said Chris Stone, Founder of Faith Driven Consumer and a Certified Brand Strategist. “However, our online survey finds that Paramount’s upcoming Noah film – widely reported to stray significantly from the core biblical message of the actual story – is going to face serious challenges resonating with Faith Driven Consumers, which could hurt the film’s bottom line. In order to increase its commercial viability, Paramount would be wise to take another look.” 

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So it’s not that Hollywood should honor the Bible because it’s the right thing to do, but only because it wants money? Yes, maybe the group would say it was speaking the language that Hollywood understands. Even so, it was a bizarre tack.

As for Paramount, the studio's noting the absence of the “Noah” question in the survey was valid. And its own data seemed sound enough, coming from respectable outfits such as Nielsen’s NRG and the faith-based Barna Group. But some of the evidence the company cited was shaky too.

It touted “the fact that 86% of Christian respondents who are aware of the film said they would recommend ‘Noah’ to their friends.” But how many are aware in the first place? And since they haven’t seen it, how could they recommend it? What would such a recommendation even mean?

The whole debate seems kind of moot. Couldn’t we just see what happened that first weekend and evaluate from there? Tracking is already more slippery than ever, and tracking a  group studios don’t regularly single out even more so. So what exactly does any of this prove? It’s all a bit unnecessary and, yes, an unholy mess. 

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