Will God be boffo box office?

A former producer, now a movie reporter for The New York Times, offers his insight: 

Once, studios routinely made movies with overtly religious themes for the mainstream audience. Classics like “The Ten Commandments,” “Quo Vadis” and “A Man for All Seasons” — each of which was nominated for a best picture Oscar — were box-office winners with a wide range of viewers. But after years of neglect or occasional hostility, the question now is whether Hollywood can still find common ground with religious audiences.

Paramount is not alone in taking the gamble [with the film "Noah."]. On Friday, Fox is releasing “Son of God,” a theatrical film culled from the History Channel’s hit cable series “The Bible,” enhanced with some new scenes. Church groups are mobilizing what is expected to be a strong turnout for a movie that is aimed more squarely at the faithful than is “Noah,” which courts those who believe and those who may not.

Earlier this month, an advertisement for “Noah” during the Super Bowl promised an unflinching, effects-heavy rendering of “the world’s most epic event.” There is a message of faith, but also enough thrills to satisfy action fans: “I am not alone,” Mr. Crowe’s Noah assures a desperate and threatening horde, who are soon swept away by a mighty computer-generated flood.

For months, Hollywood has been buzzing about the film’s postproduction woes. Under the guidance of Paramount’s vice chairman, Rob Moore, who says he is a devout Christian but has also been eager for a mainstream hit, “Noah” has been screened for test audiences, who have been lukewarm, regardless of their beliefs.

Earlier, Hollywood regularly courted the faithful, as far back as 1943 with the release by 20th Century Fox of “The Song of Bernadette.” The film, about the miracle of Lourdes, drew 12 Oscar nominations, including one for best picture and a best actress award for Jennifer Jones. “Going My Way,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” “The Robe,” “The Nun’s Story” and “Lilies of the Field” extended the string of religiously themed best-picture nominees, and “A Man for All Seasons” won the top Oscar in 1967….

…For the most part, though, studios have steered toward faith-based films for a niche market, or smaller-scale dramas with subtle spiritual messages, like Warner Brothers’ “Blind Side,” which posed as a sports film but resonated with megachurches and became a surprise hit. (In April, Sony’s TriStar division will release “Heaven Is for Real,” based on the best-selling account of a boy’s near-death experience and encounters with divine forces.)

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