Hollywood rediscovers religion! Again!

Anyone who knows anything about the religion beat knows that there are stories that the pros end up writing time and time again. Holiday stories are the most obvious, but there are others — such as all of those theodicy studies that your GetReligionistas keep pointing out year after year.

Well, I’ve been thinking about this one for some time now and I think I am ready to make the call.

Every three to five years, mainstream journalists — or those at The Los Angeles Times, at the very least — will discover the amazing, shocking, unknown fact that dedicated religious believers who attend worship services approximately once a week like to go see movies just like everybody else.

In fact (gasp!) they can even be thought of as a kind of “niche” audience that deserves special attention and the occasional quality film that takes them and their concerns seriously. I realize that it’s strange to pin the “niche” label on about 20 to 40 percent of the U.S. population, but there seem to be groups that Hollywood has trouble detecting in its focus groups.

Do you remember the stunned newspaper articles that created “The Passion of the Christ”? And then there was the wave of coverage that came soon after that, about the time of “The Blind Side.” I was interviewed for the Los Angeles Times piece on that one and the reporter who talked to me was slightly apologetic about the fact that the newspaper’s editors still thought that this old story (can you say “Chariots of Fire”?) was brand new and fresh as a daisy.

So here we go again. This time, we’re watching a true mini-wave of low- to mid-budget Indie films with a “spiritual” bent, aimed at (gasp!) several different “spiritual” audiences. When you put that into a Los Angeles Times trend story, it sounds like this:

In many quarters, Hollywood has long been regarded as an essentially godless place. But judging by the offerings at the movies this season, and more in the works, Tinseltown is rediscovering religion.

My advice: Someone needs to copyright that phrase, “Tinseltown is rediscovering religion.” You can make some money off it in three to five years.

But back to the story.

In the span of just a few weeks starting in late August, audiences looking for God at their local multiplex have had their choice of titles, including “Higher Ground,” a chronicle of one woman’s struggle with her faith; “Seven Days in Utopia,” an inspirational golf drama; and “Machine Gun Preacher,” about an evangelist who takes up arms in Africa. And the onslaught isn’t slowing down. “Courageous,” about policemen wrestling with their faith after a tragedy, opened this weekend. Emilio Estevez’s “The Way,” about a father on a religious pilgrimage, is set for Friday.

These films follow the success this spring of “Soul Surfer,” about a Christian teen surfer’s comeback after losing an arm to a shark. Released by Sony’s TriStar division, the film brought in nearly $44 million at the U.S. box office.

In many cases, these movies are not filled with unknown actors; they star top performers such as Robert Duvall, Melissa Leo, Helen Hunt, Helen Mirren and Louis Gossett Jr. (all Oscar winners), plus Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen and Gerard Butler.

So why is Hollywood looking to a higher authority?

Because this is America and large parts of American are filled with ordinary Americans? Because millions of regular worshipers also like to overpay for popcorn from time to time?

Actually, this story is one of the better “hot trend” pieces that I have read on this topic. It talks about the days in the mid-20th century when religious films were normal. It discusses the low-budget trend symbolized by the “Facing the Giants” Southern Baptists down in Georgia who recently released “Courageous.”

However, this story should win some kind of prize for daring to mention the following shocking facts.

Ready? Are you sitting down?

Rich Peluso, vice president of Affirm Films, the Sony Pictures division that acquires faith-based and inspirational films, said some in Hollywood still believe that the audience for religious-themed movies is limited to the Midwest and South.

“The reality is that the Christian population in Los Angeles, based on pure population size, is one of the largest populations of Christians in the country,” he said. “In Seattle and Portland, we do extremely well with the faith-based populations there. And Chicago and New York. Faith-based films tend to do well where Christians are, and they tend to be everywhere.”

All together now: Who are those guys?

So here is my request for GetReligion readers. Have you paid attention to these stories through the years? Please send us URLs for some of the best and worst of the “Tinseltown gets religion” coverage. Let’s have ‘em. And which movies should have been mentioned in this latest Times piece, but were not?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    I also thought this was one of the better stories although I admit to not paying close attention to the sub-genre you know so well. And yes, they are stating obvious facts, but obvious facts are not obvious to everyone. So I would personally subtract the snark from your post.

  • Darrell Turner

    One movie that should have been mentioned is “The Tree of Life,” a film that will make people of any faith, and no faith, reflect on the theme in the title.

  • ctd

    I also noticed that “Tree of Life” was not mentioned. And, although it was not a “Hollywood” film, “Of Gods and Men” has done very well for a foreign film. One gets the impression that the reporter thinks that all “religious” films are inspirational films.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    What’s equally interesting is how much religion is in existing movies and goes unremarked. E.g. Shylaman’s “Signs”, which tells the story of Mel Gibson’s character regaining his faith thanks to… signs. Or “I Am Legend”, which actually inserted religious themes not present in the source material.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    We all know that you are not into snark.

    Darrell, et al:

    TOTALLY right on The Tree of Life, especially since it’s producers made an active attempt to reach out to a wide range of religious viewers in their promotional efforts.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    In the article’s history of Hollywood, jumping from the 1950s all the way to The Passion of the Christ leaves out a lot of movies, too many to mention. If King was trying to create the narrative “Hollywood was interested in religion, then it wasn’t,” I’m surprised she didn’t mention the Chronicles of Narnia series, which started off very strongly in 2005, but has lost momentum with the subsequent movies.

  • http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com John Petty

    Most explicitly religious movies are pretty terrible, both in terms of art and theology.

    Some other movies, however, such as Babette’s Feast, Italian for Beginners, and many others, have profound spiritual messages even though they aren’t marketed as “religious.” (Thank heaven for that.)

  • Janice Brown

    You have to know that any film that features Robert Duvall will be a winner. we saw it with family and grandchildren, 2 boys, 12 and 13 , girl 8 and we loved it.
    A great film but a lousy title.