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Mark Burnett and Roma Downey put faith in ‘The Bible’ for History

Mark Burnett, one of the most prolific reality-show producers on television, is going from scorched earth to burning bush.

The former military paratrooper who made his name in Hollywood with back-biting, take-no-prisoners programs such as “Survivor,” now in its 26th season, and “Celebrity Apprentice,” is tackling the Bible in a 10-hour miniseries that marks his first foray into the scripted genre.

The show, which launches Sunday on History channel and runs on consecutive Sundays through Easter, covers the Old and New Testaments and cherry-picks some of the best-known stories from Genesis to Revelation. Burnett and his wife, co-executive producer Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”) — who stars as Mother Mary — have by turns called the project “madly ambitious” and “completely humbling.”

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Burnett, who has scored in recent years with feel-good fare like NBC’s singing contest “The Voice” and ABC’s entrepreneurial showcase “Shark Tank,” said he wanted to update the Bible for a modern audience. He and Downey still watch one of their favorite classics, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” as an annual rite but said their three teenagers found it dated.

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With a relatively modest budget of $22 million, the producers aimed to create an epic action film with computer-generated images that could wow viewers, whether they’re steeped in Scripture or not. “We wanted it to look, sound and feel like a $100-million production, not some old donkeys-and-sandals movie of the past,” Downey said. “We have incredible special effects with Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus walking on water. We have this amazing international cast. We set out to create scale.”

Although Burnett’s biggest hits may not suggest a turn-the-other-cheek sensibility, his entry into scripted drama, specifically a faith-based series, isn’t such a stretch, said Nancy Dubuc, president, entertainment and media for History’s parent, A&E; Networks.

“It’s definitely a different production and storytelling than we’re used to seeing from him,” Dubuc said. “But it’s not foreign to his personal beliefs. I’m fascinated by the big-subject idea, and that it was Mark Burnett doing the Bible was even more compelling to me.”

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She described “The Bible” as “brand-defining event TV,” along the lines of the network’s ratings-shattering “Hatfields & McCoys” miniseries from last year and the sweeping 12-hour documentary “America: The Story of Us” from 2010. Executives say they’ve almost sold out their advertising slots (a major sponsor is Wal-Mart), and History on Sunday is also launching an extravagant epic series, “Vikings.”

Burnett said he and Downey, both Christians, started talking four years ago about creating a positive-message project. Their personal interest led them to the Bible, which Burnett called “the most debated book of all time” with lasting influence over art, culture and history. He wasn’t daunted by potential criticism of his genre hopping or challenges inherent in taking on the Scriptures.

“I knew it was a huge undertaking, but I’d prayed about it,” he said recently on a call from his Malibu home. “Once I’d thought through how to make it work, I never thought for one millisecond about not doing it.”

But how, exactly, to switch from telling stories about “Survivor’s” tribal council to parables of the ancient tribes?

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Burnett and Downey gathered some 40 religious leaders, academics and theologians of all denominations as consultants. They used an amalgam of biblical translations, yet worked from the premise that the Bible is, in their words, “the absolute truth.” Alerting viewers that it’s a drama taking poetic license, the miniseries carries a note in front of every installment: “This program is an adaptation of Bible stories that changed our world. It endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book.”

A third executive producer is Richard Bedser, who wrote for the Emmy-winning History docudrama “Gettysburg.” One of the couple’s consultants was Jonathan Bock, president of Grace Hill Media and Hollywood’s go-to marketing executive for faith-infused projects whose firm has worked on “The Blind Side” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

The faith market can be extremely lucrative, as Hollywood discovered after Mel Gibson’s 2004 “The Passion of the Christ” raked in more than $600 million at the box office, so Bock tries to root out the opportunistic. “Sometimes people look at this market purely for the money,” Bock said. “But Mark and Roma’s enthusiasm for this project was genuine. They care about this story, and they wanted to tell it in a way that hasn’t been done before.”

The finished product, which features Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado as Jesus, has snagged endorsements from heavyweights in the clergy like Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback mega-church in Orange County, Texas-based TV preacher Joel Osteen, evangelist minister T.D. Jakes and Baptist minister Charles Jenkins of Chicago. Poet Maya Angelou, self-help guru Tony Robbins and conservative group Focus on the Family have also publicly supported the show.

They considered taking a “YouTube-ish” approach, Burnett said, by stuffing in as many stories as possible in abbreviated form. But they ultimately decided to choose fewer stories and characters — among them Noah’s ark, Abraham and Isaac, Daniel and the lions’ den, the Exodus, the birth of Jesus — for a deeper dive.

The 10 hours of “The Bible,” filmed in Morocco, are split evenly between the Old and New Testaments, with Easter Sunday’s program devoted to the crucifixion and resurrection. Voice-over narration works to fill in back story.

Most of the actors are from Britain, including Sean Teale (“Skins”), Simon Kunz (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) and Peter Guinness. The music is from Oscar winner Hans Zimmer, and the score plays a pivotal role in the miniseries.

“We tried to make it emotionally connective,” Downey said. “We want viewers to walk through the pages of the Bible in the footsteps of these characters.”

Burnett and Downey’s project may be just the tip of the iceberg for religious-themed entertainment. There are a number of films in the works, including two Moses movies, one from Steven Spielberg, a Pontius Pilate drama possibly starring Brad Pitt and Will Smith’s version of Cain and Abel.

On the small screen, GSN will bring back for a second season its hit “American Bible Challenge” on March 21, and TLC recently aired “The Sisterhood” reality series about Atlanta pastors’ wives. Lifetime, which last month debuted “Pastor Brown,” an original movie based on the prodigal son story, is developing “Preachers Daughters.”

Industry watchers say Hollywood is trying to tap into an underserved audience in the U.S., where nearly half the population reports attending church regularly, according to the Pew Research Center.

Such entertainment has been lacking, said Rob Kerby, the senior editor at popular spiritual site Beliefnet, and the production pedigree of “The Bible” sets the project apart from Christian TV series of the past. “The faith community is used to Bible movies being a little cheesy, low-budget, fairly low quality, kind of B-level,” Kerby said. “I can see this raising the bar.”

It won’t be without potential pitfalls, said Diane Winston, Knight chair in media and religion at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, because audiences don’t necessarily come to the subject matter with an open mind.

“After years of going to church, people have very fixed opinions, and they’re looking for things to criticize,” Winston said. “How do you even compress the Bible into 10 hours? The risk is whether your audience agrees with the way you’ve interpreted the material and with what you’ve chosen to include and leave out. It’s a minefield.”

TV often deals with themes of spirituality and redemption, Winston said, but doesn’t usually bore into religion head-on. Dramas like “Nothing Sacred” and “Book of Daniel” had short network runs because of criticism from churchgoers and trouble securing advertisers.

To get out in front of critics and whip up support among religious groups, Burnett and Downey have been on a months-long whistle-stop promotion tour, screening parts of the miniseries for influential clergy, prayer breakfasts, faith conventions and Christian media. The couple also worked with Outreach, a Christian marketing firm in Colorado Springs, Colo., that’s seeded the show with tens of thousands of churches and pastors around the country, providing sermon guides, classroom study materials and tune-in posters.

History is hyping the show in high-visibility spots like theater screens, Sunset Strip and Times Square billboards, on-air advertising and heavy social media. The channel also is working with retail giant Wal-Mart, which is airing clips of the miniseries on its store monitors and selling three companion books. ,The retailer will distribute the Fox Home Entertainment DVD set, priced at about $60, launching in April.

As for Burnett, he’s certainly been busy. In addition to his reality series slate, he works on the MTV Movie Awards and People’s Choice Awards. During the six-month filming in Morocco for “The Bible,” he traveled back and forth between the set and L.A. to work on his reality TV projects; he has one fewer since “The Job” lasted only two episodes on CBS, but he said he’s used to juggling.

Next the couple are cutting the New Testament section into a feature film that they plan to release in theaters and working on international TV distribution for the production. Says Burnett: “It’s a grand narrative, but it tells a pretty simple story about God’s never-ending love for all of us. It’s hopeful. It’s inspirational. Maybe it’ll get people’s hearts to open.”

calendar@latimes.com

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