What he said! Yes, Hollywood wants more Christian $$$$

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In this morning’s email newsletter from the folks at Religion News Service, editor Kevin Eckstrom raised his eyebrow high (no, honest, you can sense it in the copy) and quipped:

Pretty sure we’ve seen about 5,429 versions of this story already.

Right. We get it. Hollywood is trying to lure Christian audiences to the cineplex. Again. Meanwhile, it other news …

Well, “this story” was the new feature in The Los Angeles Times that ran under an oh-so-predictable double-decker headline that proclaimed:

Hollywood tries to win Christians’ faith

With the box-office success of ‘Son of God,’ ‘God’s Not Dead’ and the controversial ‘Noah,’ more faith-based movies are in the works. But experts warn not to treat Christians as a monolithic audience.

Now, the only part of Eckstrom’s quip that I question is that very precise number — 5,429.

Don’t get me wrong, he may have done the hard work online and in LexisNexis and come up with a list of 5,429 previous urgent mainstream news reports ever since 1965 (I picked that date because of the breakthrough release of “The Sound of Music” that sent legions of evangelicals rushing to theaters to see a movie about a nun) describing the various ways Hollywood producers have tried to understand the Christian audience and get it to show up on cue.

I don’t doubt that there have been that many stories. Trust me on that.

Still, I sent Eckstrom this email reply in which I focused on a more symbolic total.

I was going to say 666 versions of that story and just let it go at that.

But one more time, let’s roll out the epic language for the obvious:

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And for a change, a ‘Noah’ movie story that sails smoothly

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Last week, I criticized USA Today’s fast-food cheeseburger of a story on the religious controversy over the new “Noah” movie.

Today, I want to praise the filet-mignon level of coverage served up by CNN’s Belief Blog and Godbeat pro Daniel Burke.

Before I do so, I must confess that I have not seen the movie and may not make it soon, as I still need to catch the new Muppet and “Veronica Mars” flicks. Plus, baseball season just started (if you’re a fan, you might enjoy my column on Opening Day in Texas), so my free time is more limited. Smile.

But back on topic: Under the headline “Does God have a prayer in Hollywood?” the in-depth CNN report combines a tractor-trailer load full of meaty material, from the director’s motivation and insight to important background on faith-based films past, present and future. Throughout, the piece provides the kind of details that speak to the beat specialist getting religion.

Let’s start with a big chunk of the top:

Los Angeles (CNN) – Forgive Darren Aronofsky if he’s begun to identify with the title character of his new film, “Noah.”

Like the infamous ark-maker, the 45-year-old director has weathered a Bible-sized storm – and it’s not over yet.

Aronofsky’s epic, which stars Russell Crowe and boasts a $130 million budget (with marketing costs to match), rode a swelling wave of controversy into American theaters on Friday.

Despite fierce criticism from some conservative Christians, “Noah” was the top box-office draw last weekend, raking in $44 million in the United States.

Part Middle-Earth fantasy flick, part family melodrama, the film is an ambitious leap for Aronofsky, director of the art-house hits “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”

Both of those films were showered with praise and awards. “Noah,” on the other hand, has sailed into a stiff headwind.

Glenn Beck and megachurch pastor Rick Warren blasted the film. The National Religious Broadcasters insisted “Noah” include a disclaimer acknowledging the filmmakers took “artistic license” with the Bible story. Several Muslim countries have banned the movie, citing Islam’s injunctions against depicting prophets.

Even Paramount, the studio releasing “Noah,” has agitated Aronofsky, testing at least five different versions of his film with focus groups.

See the deft way that Burke explains the Muslim opposition (the depiction of prophets)? That’s basic journalism maybe, but USA Today mentioned concern by Muslim-dominated nations with no explanation why.

Give CNN credit, too, for understanding the importance of reporting on the director’s own faith background:

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About those rough religious waters for the ‘Noah’ movie

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A USA Today headline declares:

‘Noah’ hits rough religious waters on-screen

The top of the story:

Director Darren Aronofsky has seen his share of controversy in a body of work that has included uncompromising films such as Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan.

But there hasn’t been anything quite like the storm that has erupted over his treatment of the Old Testament tale featured in Noah, out Friday. The maelstrom has battle-tested studio heads reaching for appropriate biblical comparisons.

“It’s been a unique journey,” says Rob Moore, vice chairman of distributor Paramount Studios. “I actually feel like some combination of Noah preparing for the storm, or Joseph, where you feel like you’re in some foreign land and you’re trying to figure out how to make it all work.”

The story of Noah’s construction of a massive ark to save Earth’s animals from God’s flood-borne wrath is sacred text in the Koran and the Bible, and is one of the most popular stories with children.

Keep reading, and the concise report references concerns about the film from some Muslim-dominated nations as well as conservative radio talk show host Glenn Beck. Later, readers hear from the head of the National Religious Broadcasters:

NRB President Jerry Johnson posed the all-important question in a series of articles on the organization’s website: Should Christians organize churches to see Noah, or boycott it?

While taking issue with some of Aronofsky’s vision, Johnson wrote many would “enjoy” the “quality production.”

“Most importantly, you can have healthy gospel discussions about some of the positives, and even the negatives,” Johnson wrote. He also made clear it was not a “buy up a block of tickets” moment for churches.

But what are the positives? What are the negatives?

This vague story allows that the Koran and the Bible contain the story of Noah. Why not report what those texts say about Noah and compare those stories with the one on the big screen? (Maybe those kind of details would give the plot away, but in this case, isn’t that the point?)

In a related story, USA Today reports that Hollywood has found religion and profits at theaters.

That story provides some insight:

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Hollywood’s ‘Noah’ wars: Why not quote the Bible?

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Let’s face it. That Noah character in Genesis 9 is one pretty wired, complex fellow. I don’t know about you, but I can see the volatile actor Russell Crowe digging into some of this stuff:

The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth.

Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded [a] to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.

When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,

Cursed be Canaan!
the lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers
.”

In other words, whatever was going on with Noah in the events leading up to the flood and in the flood itself didn’t exactly turn him into a living ray of sunshine and light. This man had issues.

Some of that is soaked into the Hollywood drama covered in a new Hollywood Reporter piece that ran under this headline: “Rough Seas on ‘Noah’: Darren Aronofsky Opens Up on the Biblical Battle to Woo Christians (and Everyone Else).”

Now, on one level, this tale centers on one of the Holy Grails of modern Hollywood, which is the quest to latch onto the massive faith-based audience that lined up over and over for Mel Gibson’s blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ.” Hollywood big shots want that market share, but it’s clear that they are not sure how to woo said audience while continuing to do that edgy Hollywood thing that they want to do.

The Hollywood Reporter piece is all over that story. Here’s a sample:

The making of Noah, with Russell Crowe as the lead, turned into a head-on collision between an auteur filmmaker coming off a career-defining success in Black Swan ($330 million global, five Oscar nominations) and a studio working to protect a major investment that is intended to appeal to believers of every religion as well as those without any faith. Paramount Pictures, in partnership with New Regency Productions, is shouldering a budget on the March 28 release of more than $125 million, by far the costliest movie Aronofsky has made. (His previous high was $35 million for The Fountain, which foundered for Warner Bros. in 2006. Black Swan was independently financed and cost just $13 million.)

The trouble began when Paramount, nervous about how audiences would respond to Aronofsky’s fantastical world and his deeply conflicted Noah, insisted on conducting test screenings over the director’s vehement objections while the film was a work in progress.

Friction grew when a segment of the recruited Christian viewers, among whom the studio had hoped to find Noah’s most enthusiastic fans, questioned the film’s adherence to the Bible story and reacted negatively to the intensity and darkness of the lead character. Aronofsky’s Noah gets drunk, for example, and considers taking drastic measures to eradicate mankind from the planet.

The finances and Hollywood politics of all of this are quite Byzantine. Check out this material, care of Paramount Vice Chair Rob Moore:

Moore says Aronofsky’s Noah is not in the more literal vein of the blockbuster Bible series produced for the History channel by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. “They’ve been very effective in terms of communicating to and being embraced by a Christian audience,” says Moore. “This movie has a lot more creativity to it. And therefore, if you want to put it on the spectrum, it probably is more accurate to say this movie is inspired by the story of Noah.”

At the same time, he says the film reflects “the key themes of the Noah story in Genesis — of faith and hope and God’s promise to mankind.” The studio is aware that a vocal segment of Christian viewers might reject the film over accuracy. Still, Moore says, “Our anticipation is that the vast majority of the Christian community will embrace it.”

And so forth and so on. So here is what I — literally — don’t understand:

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