The company that brought TV viewers racy and irreverent programs such as "Nip/Tuck," "Temptation Island" and "The Simpsons" has found religion.
In the biggest commitment of its sort by a Hollywood studio, News Corp.'s Fox Filmed Entertainment is expected to unveil plans today to capture the gargantuan Christian audience that made "The Passion of the Christ" a global phenomenon.
The home entertainment division of Rupert Murdoch's movie studio plans to produce as many as a dozen films a year under a banner called FoxFaith. At least six of those films will be released in theaters under an agreement with two of the nation's largest chains, AMC Theatres and Carmike Cinemas.
The first theatrical release, called "Love's Abiding Joy," is scheduled to hit the big screen Oct. 6. The movie, which cost about $2 million to make, is based on the fourth installment of Christian novelist Janette Oke's popular series, "Love Comes Softly."
"A segment of the market is starving for this type of content," said Simon Swart, general manager of Fox's U.S. home entertainment unit.
"We want to push the production value, not videotape sermons or proselytize."
Hollywood has made religious-themed movies for years including such memorable titles as "The Ten Commandments" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told." But FoxFaith will target evangelical Christians who often have shunned popular entertainment as offensive.
Fox might seem an unlikely studio to pioneer a religious label, given its history as a purveyor of salacious TV programming. Yet people in the Christian community say the company has gained credibility as the voice for conservative America through its Fox News Channel.
Still, courting evangelical Christians can be tricky. "If this is something Fox is doing only to exploit the audience -- or if it's something they don't believe in or are doing cynically -- then there could be problems," said Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, a box-office reporting service. "There isn't a huge turnout for these films unless they speak to what Christianity is all about. People want a guide to life and Hollywood has ignored that by saying nothing or dwelling on vices."
Over the last four years, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has quietly built a network to mobilize evangelical Christian moviegoers in an era of diminishing box-office returns. The network includes 90,000 congregations and a database of more than 14 million mainly evangelical households.
FoxFaith films, to be based on Christian bestsellers, will have small budgets of less than $5 million each, compared with the $60-million average. The movies each will be backed by $5-million marketing campaigns. Although that is skimpy compared with the $36 million Hollywood spends to market the average movie, the budget is significant for targeting a niche audience, especially one as fervent as many evangelical Christians.
For instance, "The Passion" grossed $612 million worldwide, thanks in part to its appeal to Christians. Another spiritual odyssey, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," took in $745 million globally. Most recently, Christians came out for this summer's controversial "The Da Vinci Code," which has brought in $754 million worldwide.
Other studios also are beginning to dip an oar into Christian waters. New Line Cinema's "The Nativity Story," scheduled to be released in December, tells the story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter to give birth to Jesus. Legendary Pictures, which has a multi-film deal with Warner Bros., is planning to make a movie version of John Milton's epic 17th century poem about the fall of man, "Paradise Lost."
Fox seems to be getting a warm reception from the Christian community. "It is extremely satisfying to be taken seriously," said Nancy Neutzling, vice president of marketing for Word Distribution, FoxFaith's distributor to Christian retailers. "It's like we have arrived."
Fox saw an opportunity to tap into the Christian market four years ago through Ralph Winter, the producer behind the studio's "X-Men" franchise. During a visit to the set of "The Planet of the Apes," Swart introduced Winter, the executive producer, to a representative from a major retailer, who asked whether he would make more movies like "Left Behind," a Christian apocalyptic thriller released in 2001.
The conversation led Winter, a Christian, to co-produce for Fox's home entertainment division the supernatural Christian thriller "The Hangman's Curse," based on the Frank Peretti novel. Released on a limited basis in fall 2003, the movie flopped at the box office but did well on DVD.
The experience taught Jeff Yordy, vice president of marketing for FoxFaith, a valuable lesson about the Christian audience when an avalanche of letters flooded his office from Christians protesting a Bible study companion to the film.
"We got 10,000 letters from ministers telling me I was not interpreting the scripture correctly," recalled Yordy, a Christian. "You have to take a broader perspective so everybody can interpret based on their own faith."
But what really propelled the idea of devoting a label to Christian titles was Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." The film's success stunned Hollywood and confirmed Fox executives' hunches about the Christian market.
Although 20th Century Fox passed on distributing "The Passion," fearing a firestorm of controversy, its home entertainment division, which acquired the domestic home video rights, has sold more than 15 million units on DVD. Fox Home Entertainment continued to acquire and distribute Christian videos such as "Mother Teresa" and the documentary "Beyond the Gates of Splendor."
Last year, the studio developed a FoxFaith website and since has sold more than 30 million faith-based DVD titles to Christian retailers. FoxFaith has brought in about $200 million over the last year, which is equivalent to the box-office sales of Fox Searchlight, the studio's specialty film division. Both Fox units share some portion of their revenue with partners.
In preparation for its theatrical debut, FoxFaith partnered with the Dove Foundation, a nonprofit organization that monitors "wholesome" family entertainment. Dove agreed to place its seal of approval on some FoxFaith films.
In February, Yordy unveiled the FoxFaith logo at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville, bringing the normally skeptical crowd to its feet. Seeing the label on the big screen formalized the commitment from Fox, Yordy said.
Three years earlier, the idea of launching a Christian label at Fox was considered a joke, but Yordy said the use of humor helped win the convention-goers' trust this time around.
"The approach we took was ... 'At Fox, you may know us for our quality family programming,' " Yordy said he told the audience, against a backdrop of video clips from Paris Hilton's "The Simple Life" and the reality show "Temptation Island."
"The room just died laughing," he said. "I said to them, 'That is exactly what you expect from Fox. But that is not what we at FoxFaith are.' "
FoxFaith's biggest splash came in July at the International Christian Retail Show in Denver, the largest annual gathering of Christian retailers in the nation.
Inside a massive white tent across from the Denver Convention Center, a studio-sponsored event had all the earmarks of a Hollywood fete: a lavish buffet, an exclusive movie preview of 20th Century Fox's upcoming family-friendly horse drama "Flicka" and acrobats from Cirque du Soleil. Because it was a Christian convention, no alcohol was served and the performers' costumes were inspected to ensure demure necklines.
Outside the studio system
Here are key movies produced by Christians outside the Hollywood studio system:
Title, Release date: Domestic box-office gross (in millions)
The Passion of the Christ, 2004: $370.8
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 2005: $291.7
Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, 2002: $25.6
The Omega Code, 1999: $12.6
End of the Spear, 2006: $11.7
Megiddo: The Omega Code 2, 2001: $6.0
Luther, 2003: $5.8
The Other Side of Heaven, 2001: $4.7
Left Behind, 2001: $4.2
China Cry: A True Story, 1990: $4.2
Source: Box Office Mojo