As chief operating officer of Promenade Pictures, Cindy Bond had high hopes for The Ten Commandments, the first in a projected 12-part series of computer-animated ‘Epic Stories of the Bible,’ when it opened in theatres last October. But the film failed to make much of a splash, opening well out of the Top 20 and grossing less than a million dollars — on a project that cost $11.6 million to make.
The movie came out on DVD last week, and Bond spoke to CT Movies about what went wrong — and how things might be different with their next film, a comedy about Noah’s Ark due sometime around Easter 2009.
The Ten Commandments didn’t do very well at the box office last year. Is it fair to say the film bombed?
Bond: I don’t think that’s the case at all. You know what “bomb” has to do with? It has to do with how much it costs to produce the movie, and then how much they make at the box office and then the DVD. I mean, comparing our budget to what we made at the box office and what we’re going to make on DVD, this movie will be in profit. Very few movies can boast that, in Hollywood. There was a movie starring Brad Pitt [The Assassination of Jesse James] that opened around the same time we did, that was made for a budget in the $30 million range, and they only made I think north of $3 million.
Also, we didn’t have an enormous amount of money in our marketing campaign, and we didn’t have a lot of time. We only had about three months to market the movie, and our big focus was the grassroots side of the campaign, through the churches, and it takes a long time. [When CT Movies interviewed Bond and Promenade CEO Frank Yablans last October, Yablans said the company had been “developing our material for 4½ years” and had a $120 million “war chest” for its projects. — Ed.]
The good side is the people who did see the movie really liked it. We have a good solid B on Box Office Mojo from people who saw the movie and really liked it. We made the movie for moms, pops and kids, for families. We started off making The Ten Commandments originally as a direct-to-video movie, and about half-way in we said, “It looks so great, let’s work to go theatrical,” and so that’s what happened. And considering we were going to make a direct-to-DVD movie and ended up with what we did, I think we did a great job!
So was the theatrical release sort of like a commercial for the DVD?
Bond: Exactly, one hundred percent. If we hadn’t gone theatrical, we’d be starting from scratch with our DVD marketing, but it was absolutely one hundred percent a big commercial for the DVD release.
Did it do better than you expected? Worse?
Bond: No, it definitely did worse than I expected. I thought it would do better. But then, you know, looking at the marketing campaign having only three months, it’s just– I know hindsight is always 20/20, but we absolutely did not have enough time. There were various individuals on our marketing team that were very concerned from the beginning, but there was a release schedule and we went with it. In hindsight, we would have held out and gone theatrical now.
I think people were talking about The Passion at least a year before it came out. That movie really had time to drum up the interest.
Bond: Yeah. And Bella is another good example; they were out there at least nine months to a year, and it was a very good movie. Ten Commandments was a very good movie. We just tried to pull off the impossible, we tried to pull it together in three months, and it just wasn’t enough time.
Ten Commandments is a really good movie that we’re very proud of. I know the movie’s anointed. I’ve gotten so many letters of support, letters that have said they feel the movie is very anointed.
There was also some controversy before the film came out, over the advertising.
Bond: Yeah, and I’m wondering if it worked against us. We had bought airtime on Disney Radio for a spot that we had created, to run on their network; that’s our core audience, is kids, probably five to 12 years old. So we bought the time and gave them our spot — which by the way had already been accepted by Ryan Seacrest and Dr. Laura and numerous other radio shows — and only Radio Disney came back and said, “We’ll play your spot but you have to take out the words ‘chosen by God.'” Well, the grapevine is an interesting thing, because some pastor friends and industry friends had heard a rumor that Disney made Promenade take God out of the movie! And I’m thinking, ‘Where did that come from?’ But it couldn’t be farther from the truth. We felt it was better to take out the words “chosen by God” [from the ad] and to advertise in front of the kids and get them in the theatre so they can hear about God, rather than just pull it and not give them any awareness. So that was the controversy.
Bond: Oh yes, absolutely the case. We arranged financing for all 12 in the beginning, and like I said, we anticipated the first one would go direct-to-DVD. The second in the series has been theatrical from day one, as will the other pictures, and the second picture, The Flood, is just absolutely fantastic. And the animation has improved actually a huge amount. We did the best we could on the first one, and we knew it would be a learning curve, and it’s just very exciting to see what all the animators are doing. I just got back from New Zealand, so I’m pretty pumped up.
You just said The Flood. The title I’ve heard is Noah’s Ark: The New Beginning.
Bond: Well, right now we’re all in a working-title phase. So right now we’re talking about The Flood, over Noah’s Ark: The New Beginning. But it’s the story of Noah.
But definitely with a twist: We’ve got talking animals, and one of the little animals gets in trouble and doesn’t look like he’s going to make the cruise, and the other ones have to go out and find him. There’s a lot of humor, and the cast is unbelievable. We’ve got Michael Keaton and Marcia Gay Harden, who won an Oscar for Pollock, and we’ve got Sir Ben Kingsley, and we’ve got Rob Schneider who is just hysterical — he plays a prairie dog — and we have talking animals and a lot more humour.
The Ten Commandments, inherently, is a tough story, it’s not a comedy. We injected levity into the movie as much as we could, but we wanted to stick close to scripture, which we did. We told the whole story in 88 minutes, so it would hold kids’ attention from beginning to end. A lot of moms have said, “Thank God you made this movie because we tried to get our kids to sit through the DeMille version but it’s three and a half hours, the kids won’t do it!”
But when we came to The Flood, the running time is about the same, we made it more kid friendly, meaning there’s much more humor, talking animals, the animation level is better. All the way around, the movie is just a lot more commercial.
How is The Flood compared to The Ten Commandments in terms of budget?
Bond: It’s twice the budget.
Is Ben Kingsley back as the narrator, and Elliott Gould as God?
Bond: Yeah, that’s right.
Is that going to be consistent across all 12 films?
Bond: I certainly would love it to be. It depends on their availability. But I think I’ve got a real good shot, with that being the case. Sir Ben is just phenomenal to work with, he’s such a pro. He just brings so much to the process, to the movie; his voice just takes you to another place, his voice just has so much depth and he’s so profound. And Elliott, the reason we went with Elliott was because, as opposed to the stereotypical wrathful angry God that everybody wants to portray as the Old Testament God, we wanted to portray a loving God that is infinitely patient with us, but that, when we continually mess up, there are consequences when we cross boundary lines. [For more on the Noah’s Ark cartoon, click here.]
You mentioned financing. Have you got that money in hand already?
Bond: The money’s not banked, it’s just that we have very, very wealthy investors. A lot of them, particularly in Singapore, are the ones who came to us and said, “We’ll fund all your movies.” At the time we were only doing six, and they said, “Well, we’ll commit to funding them if you’ll do 12.” The whole group of people are Christians who believe in the power of media to influence hearts and minds, and really positively impact culture for the kingdom of God, and they believe wholeheartedly in ‘Epic Stories of the Bible’ as a way to influence kids.
The Ten Commandments was the first animated film I produced, the first for the whole group of us who did it [at Promenade]. We’re all of the same heart and mind, we all love the Lord, we all have the same objective in mind — to use these movies as a tool to get kids excited about the greatest stories ever told, starring the greatest superheroes who ever existed. That’s been our common goal and objective.
— A shorter version of this article was first published at Christianity Today Movies.