Barbara Nicolosi Accuses Me of Selling My Soul to ‘Noah’ Marketers – For a Stale Bagel

Apparently my colleague Barbara Nicolosi is going to blow the cover off the scandalous secret of Christian film marketing.

I want to be very clear that I have a lot of respect for Barbara. She was instrumental in helping me start thinking about movies specifically and culture in general. She taught at the Act One writing program at the time, a screenwriting school that takes the business of Hollywood seriously and trains Christians to hone their craft so they are able to professionally and artistically speak into the moviemaking and TV business.

Barbara was never soft with her students. You have to make a career of Hollywood, she taught, not a hobby. You have to respect the craft. You have to actually work hard, very hard, and maybe in decades you’ll be at a point where you can make a difference.

It was tough love, tough love that the Christian culture needed and she helped shape Christian thinking at that time and I’m grateful for her voice back a decade ago.

That’s why it bothers me so much, though, that in the case of Noah, Barbara will not concede that other Christians may have a valid different opinion on the movie (here’s my positive review). She has said that those of us who like it don’t really like it, but are lying and have received some shady, yet undefined, payout from the studio.

Because we have the temerity to disagree with her.

This is insulting at best, slanderous at worst.

I certainly don’t get paid much for being a movie critic. If I were selling my soul, I’d expect it to pay better.

Barbara has taken what was a friendly debate among various Christian critics and turned it into something ugly and personal. Us versus them. The righteous versus the evildoers. The godly versus the diabolical. Over a movie. Over, let’s repeat again, a movie. Not human trafficking or homelessness or war theory or abortion. A movie.

This was not necessary. And it’s not right.

Yes, marketing firms focus on the Christian market. This is not news either. We can’t have it both ways, saying that Hollywood ignores people of faith on one hand and demanding products (i.e. movies) that we want to see, and then turn around and complain that we’re treated as a market.

So you can peek behind the curtain here, let me tell you how I came to review Noah early and interview the directors.

By the way, separately from my screening and interview, the advertising department at Patheos made a deal to advertise the film on our site. Many other sites advertised the film as well. One had nothing to do with the other. This is an age-old dilemma in news, from the early days of newspapers. Like all reputable sites, we have a firm line between editorial and advertising, which is why what Barbara says about the Entertainment Channel at Patheos, which I run, being undisclosed paid advertising is patently untrue.

The stories I ran were selected for their news value and nothing else. With all the worldwide press this film has generated, I hardly have to argue it was a news-worthy story.

Peter Chattaway here at Patheos was covering Noah and other Bible stories in more depth than anyone else long before he was offered an interview. He continues to do fine work. And Steven Greydanus’ work on Noah has been extremely valuable and insightful as well.

By the way, Barbara will receive a decent sized check for her post, paid for in part by the advertising she so denounces.

Anyway, Paramount and Grace Hill Media, who have always treated me well and with integrity, offered me an advance screening and an exclusive interview on a movie with a lot of buzz, especially to my faith-based readership. I jumped at it.

That’s called journalism.

I know “journalism” is a lofty word to throw around about movie criticism, but ultimately that’s what I aspire to. Like Jake Tapper scoring an interview with the President or Barbara Walters interviewing Bono, we all scramble for content that will bring eyeballs to our writing and serve the public. We want the big story, the scoop.

I do many interviews a year, some of them pitched by Grace Hill Media, most via other contacts. I turn down quite a few pitches from GHM and others as well. Some interviewees are big names, others you wouldn’t recognize but have big talent. Here’s the interview I did recently with Jason Bateman about the extremely R-rated Bad Words, an interview I also very much enjoyed, and which, frankly, should be WAY more controversial than my work on Noah. 

Of course I jumped at Aronofsky. I would be crazy to turn down an advance screening and interview with the hottest movie of the year so far and a story that was making waves not only in religious circles, but worldwide secular circles.  It has nothing to do with the pride of meeting famous people or stoking my ego, except in the sense I would like to be an excellent journalist. It has everything to do with scooping the story and serving my readers. This is what journalists do.

I agreed to an embargo until a certain date – standard operating procedure in many beats of journalism – and nothing else. It was clear that the studio hoped I’d like the film. It was clear that I might not and that was the risk they were taking. We discussed that ahead of time.

Paramount tried to set up the screening and interview here where I live in DC. Darren Aronofsky was still editing some aspects of the film and could not take time for an entire day trip to DC. So I accepted a flight up to New York paid for by the studio. Patheos does not have a budget for travel, at least not yet, something not unusual in the tightened financial arena of current media.

The plane was just a rickety puddle jumper. More dubious than luxurious. I flew there and back the same day. I watched the film in a screening room and missed lunch time doing it. Someone brought me tea in a styrofoam cup (which I spilled all over the floor and myself like a dork but at least it helped me identify with the characters in the flood scene).

I liked the film very much, immediately. Paramount reps rushed me to make my window with Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. I talked with them for 25 minutes and found them both fascinating, intelligent, respectful, and well-thought. This is not always the case with Hollywood types, but it was here. (Read my entire interview here.)

I confess that in a moment of weakness brought on by low blood sugar, I did accept an abandoned stale bagel that was laying around the Paramount break room.

Ah the glamour of show business!

I then went home, paying for my own crappy overpriced airport dinner, which I scarfed down like an orphan in a Charles Dickens novel, and wrote an honest review and interview feature. Oh, I bought myself a nine-dollar beer too. I might buy myself another one after finishing this post.

All in all, I would rather have stayed in DC that day if it weren’t for the story I was chasing. I went through a long day of travel for a story that I thought, and still think, was valuable to my readers. The travel about as much fun as a root canal. The story itself was great fun. I do not appreciate Barbara or anyone implying I have done anything scandalous, immoral, or unprofessional here.

Barbara’s reasoning goes: These critics disagree with me, therefore they are lying. If they are lying, they must have a reason to lie. If they have a reason, they must be bought. It’s the worst kind of ad hominem attack and betrays a shocking arrogance about the presumed correctness of her own point of view.

She’s so right that anyone who disagrees with her is not only wrong, but evil.

My salvation hardly rests on whether I agree with Barbara on how many stars a movie should get.

I mean, I agree with Rotten Tomatoes’s Tomatometer 76% of the time, but I don’t expect that to get me into heaven.

I liked Noah. I’m not going to apologize for that or be bullied into changing my mind. I liked having a scoop. I’m not going to apologize for that either.

But I would much rather engage Barbara, learn from her, and enjoy her usually insightful analysis than fight her. I hope she’ll be willing.

About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a lead critic and editor of entertainment at Patheos. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey

  • JB

    Great clarifying piece, Rebecca. As the head of the company that Barbara accuses of “bribing” journalists and respected Christian leaders (no facts, mind you, just her guess), I appreciate that you’ve tried to engage her ill-informed and borderline slanderous screed, but sadly, you’re tilting at windmills. Barbara is ALWAYS right and everybody else is always wrong (and probably evil and/or on the take.)

    Here’s a fun thing to watch out for in the future: In the coming year, Barbara has a movie coming out that she co-wrote. Since advertising is inherently compromising, advance screenings for Christian leaders is influence peddling, and early access to the film, talent and filmmakers for journalists is off-limits and tantamount to bribery, I’ll be anxious to see how she plans on building an audience for her film. Think she’ll attack the studio and marketers who try to make her film a success? Yeah, me neither…

    Jonathan Bock
    President
    Grace Hill Media

    • Victor Morton

      … or perhaps people should maintain their integrity, refuse to be played like a fiddle, avoid being corrupted by paid avert… er … marketing … and ignore her film.

  • brnicolosi

    My feeling is not that people who disagree with me about movies are evil, but rather that they are often ignorant about the art form. In the Church, this is endemic, and particularly in the arena of pop-culture criticism. In the same way that Christians over-looked the storytelling flaws in ‘Bella’ because they liked the intended message and wanted to support the filmmakers, Christians are over-looking the storytelling flaws in ‘Noah.’ I find the compulsion to support Aronofsky perplexing, but understandable as just one more example of the reactionary desire in the post-modern Church to seem “nice.” And, of course, you were set up for this by the marketers of the film who have learned how to play the Christian community like a fiddle.

    But even having you misconstrue and misstate – and get personal where I never did use your name – it is worth it to me if we can begin an honest conversation about the smarmy influence buying that has been going on in the marketing to the so-called Christian audience. It’s creepy creepy hi-stakes expensive stuff and people need to know. You have stated that you are immune to the flattery and access and all the other goodies that we both know goes into getting you to give prime real estate on the channel as a hidden advertisement for the movie. But you did it – so it worked.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      “In the interest of full disclosure, for example, this blog is hosted on the Entertainment Channel of Patheos. That same Entertainment Channel received money to feature the movie ‘Noah’ to accompany its release. The website took money to essentially function as a paid advertising service for the movie. But those who are visiting the site don’t know that.”

      From your prior blog. I am the Editor of the Channel. This is factually incorrect and you are accusing me not by name but by position. And you restate that false accusation in the comment above.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      “The other implication seems to me to be just as bad. You think this movie is good?!?! REALLY? We could go through it a minute at a time and point out its glaring flaws. They are not subtle. It is bad visual storytelling and in that sense it is not just a matter of opinion. You can say that the guy with a .123 average in baseball is actually a great hitter – in your opinion. But your opinion would be wrong. ‘Noah’ misses the mark in that same way in just about all of the key elements of visual storytelling. Again, the flaws are not subtle.

      So, I have to wonder why people are soft-peddling the reviews. There has to be something else going on, right? Just makes sense.”

      And this, from the comments you seem to have removed from the post, is you accusing me of being on the take.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      After taking a breath, I’m glad to hear you say you don’t think those who disagree are evil. That’s a good thing to hear. I agree that sometimes we’re too eager to be nice and also too eager to approve of “Christian” content that is subpar.

      What bothers me here is that I’ve spent a decade, probably, genuinely trying to thread that line. I try to give credit where credit is due and to gently call out where something is lacking. I’ve built a following of people who know and respect my voice. I also have spent a lot of care to not get wrapped into the fame and glitz. I take my role seriously and, frankly, I’d rather be home with my family.

      And yet because I disagree with you, I’m corrupt.

      And so are the others who I respect and enjoy.

      And that is so unfair and wrong.

    • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

      My feeling is not that people who disagree with me about movies are evil, but rather that they are often ignorant about the art form.

      So, evil, or ignorant. Those are the only possibilities you’re willing to acknowledge?

      There’s no way honest, intelligent, knowledgeable people could possibly come to any other conclusions than the ones you do?

      Not only is there only one legitimate interpretation of a given film, you can successfully and reliably identify that one legitimate interpretation with such absolute certitude that only deficiency of some kind could explain anyone else coming to a contrary conclusion?

    • http://yourindolentfriend.blogspot.com/ HarbingerOfDuh

      I have a question, Ms. Nicolosi. If Noah had been everything you wanted and more; if these so-called filmmaking and storytelling flaws had been absent, and biblical and doctrinal orthodoxy had been 100% upheld; and if you had written a positive review on your own site—would you still have felt compelled to publicly castigate other Christian critics who attended special screenings, as Ms. Cusey did, and ALSO wrote positive reviews?

      Think carefully before you answer.

      • Victor Morton

        ding ding ding … winner winner, chicken dinner.

        Anybody who thinks junkets buy positive critical coverage is … naive (the politest possible word).

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

          And just to be clear, I didn’t actually do the junket.

          • Victor Morton

            daggum … you don’t even GET Wales …

      • Monique Maryssa…

        If I could triple like that post… I would!

    • Gregory Lynn

      I see a lot of conspiracy-theory innuendo here, but little of substance.

  • Nick Krause

    Flannery O’Conner wrote in one of her letters “all these moralists who condemn Lolita give me the creeps”. I wonder what she would say about all the moralists condemning Noah.

    • Nordog6561

      Oh yeah, Flannery would be all about defending this film. You betcha.

      • Victor Morton

        “Oh yeah, Flannery would be all about defending that book. You betcha.” — Nordog in 1962

        • Nordog6561

          Ah, no.

          Flannery likely had no problem with Lolita because Lolita was not a theological work. And like her own work was set upon by moralists because it gave a detailed description of sin.

          It’s been many years since I’ve read Lolita, but my memory tells me that Nabokov’s novel didn’t suffer from substandard craft of story.

          Noah on the other hand, does present theological problems for a Christian such as O’Connor.

          She once said of the Eucharist that if it was merely a symbol, “the hell with it.”

          Noah starts out with “In the beginning there was nothing.”

          So, setting aside previously noted problems of craft regarding this film (because said problems have roundly been denied) O’Connor would likely taken issue with the theological implications in this film, not the least of which is the one that holds that God was not an eternal uncreated Creator.

          She likely would have said something like, “Aronofsky’s film about Noah contends that the Word of John 1:1 did not exist? The hell with it.”

          • Nick Krause

            No where in the film does it suggest that God was not an eternal uncreated Creator. In the quote “In the beginning there was nothing”, “nothing”, refers to the non existence of creation. God, of course, is not a thing. Aronofky’s way of telling his story, especially how he shows that grace enters nature not to destroy it but to save it ( yet, another example of anti-gnosticism) , would be right up O’Conner’s alley.

          • Nordog6561

            “In the beginning God created…”

            and…

            “In the beginning was the Word…”

            vs.

            “In the beginning there was nothing.”

            Hey, if that works for you, if you find nothing problematic from a Christian theological standpoint in that, who am I to try to disabuse you of the notion?

            My money is still on Flannery rejecting such storytelling.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

            I have two responses. One, is that it’s cool that we’re parsing scripture in response to a movie. I do think that what is in the movie is intentional and matters (unlike some movies where you just go, hmmm…they missed that point.)

            Two….I wonder if there’s any room between “This point isn’t theologically correct” and “This movie is the best ever.” Like, couldn’t we say, well, I don’t agree with this particular point of theology or intent, but the film moved me overall and it is valuable to watch? Does a film have to have every thing right to be valuable or can there be some parts that make you think and some parts that you ultimately reject? Can the fact that the director was, as I believe, earnestly trying to explore theological issues onscreen make up for some of his theological weakness?

            Or does it have to be 100% exactly right before we see it as valuable? Because I’m pretty sure I myself wouldn’t make that cut.

          • Nordog6561

            There’s also a world of difference between something merely being theologically incorrect and it being inimical to the Christian understanding, the Christian proclamations about God.

            I guess my question to you is, “What for you are the limits of artistic license regarding depictions of God and His works beyond which you would no longer praise a work as a positive complementary to Christendom?”

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

            Hmm… that’s a good question.

            I think it would probably come down to whether there was anything to learn from that piece of art or whether it is just a mean-spirited attack.

            But I liked “Saved” in some ways, so I’m pretty open. I think even the mean-spirited attacks can teach us something. There’s value in seeing ourselves and our faith from another perspective.

            This movie, I felt was sincerely exploring faith and what it means and feels like. Having had my own dark seasons of faith that ended with – you’ll excuse me – clearing skies, I appreciate the thoughtful wrestling with it all, the emotion of wrestling, the idea that it’s not all fine and dandy, dandy, like the children’s song we teach.

  • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

    I did better than you, Rebecca! I got a tuna melt at a diner! (After paying for my own train station parking, my own train ticket into NYC and my own subway fare. Actually, the most rewarding thing I did that day was stop at the train station to change a flat tire for a woman who was stranded without the tool to pop off the hubcap cover.)

    • JB

      I stand corrected: I did bribe you with a tuna melt. But be fair – it’s New York City – so it was an expensive tuna melt.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      Dude! Totes jelly.

    • Patrick Coffin

      I beat the both of youse. I fought San Diego traffic and got butkis. My kingdom for a stale bagel or a dainty tuna melt!

  • Josie

    I don’t really understand Barbara Nicolosi’s charges.
    Why would Christians who write about films need bribery to cover Noah?
    Its story derives from Genesis and it’s from a major studio. It’s from an acclaimed director who has given us beautiful, intelligent, compassionate, morally probing, audacious work in the past. Who, if we trust his own words (c.f. Peter Chattaway’s interviews on this site) believes in the sanctity and authority of the text, at the same time he holds it vital to launch off the Word into the realm of imagination. These things predispose me to like Noah.

    If there are shades of the Emperor’s new clothes, and if critics over-indulge its flaws, why couldn’t it be because they*want* it to succeed? Because they’re rooting for it and for the things it does – or at least tries to do – well and for the first time?

    I’ve seen how Christians flock to support their own (and the end result can be sheeplike consensus and a culture of mediocrity). This is far more pervasive than one Holllywood movie and one marketing campaign. But with this film and the dispute around it, I see that pattern exposed and shaken up.

    If Conservative Christians are open to a movie that brings creativity
    and reverence to bear on the Scriptures, and is made by a Jewish, atheist
    director -when they engage its moral truths and musings as believers and
    learners, and not just partisans -I don’t see defection. I see hope for the
    future.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      You bring up a great point.

      I like movies. I enter almost every movie hoping it will succeed, that it will make me laugh or cry or think or move me in some way. I want them to work.

      Sometimes I admit I expect little from them, but I always want them to surprise me. For instance, the LEGO movie….I expected nothing from it and 20 minutes in I was shocked to find myself loving it.

      I wanted Noah to succeed. That was my default. I wanted it to be a good, interesting movie, to raise questions about God and theology, and to move me. It did all those things.

      I think a lot of the critical voices did, for one reason or another, want it to fail. And to me, if you’re a critic and you don’t want movies to work, to succeed, to do what they set out to do well, why do you even bother? I mean, why even be a critic if that’s the case? There might be a better use of your time.

      And YES! The pattern has been shaken up in many ways by this movie. I love that idea and think it’s very true.

  • Tim Ryland

    Good grief..

  • Stoney

    Don’t be foolish, “Noah” is based on Jewish Gnosticism and the Kabbalah. And yes, I do think Flannery O’Conner would have a problem with that.

    Once again, Barbara Nicolosi is right (she usually is). I hope those Catholics have learned their lesson for promoting a “religious” movie without thoroughly vetting it first.

    http://drbrianmattson.com/journal/2014/3/31/sympathy-for-the-devil

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      I’m not Catholic. Christian, but not Catholic. For the record.

    • StRalph

      “Jewish Gnosticism”? Isn’t that kind of like kosher charcuterie?

  • Mark Wilson

    Barbara recently said in a status update “The most annoying voices surrounding the whole ‘Noah’ con are not those who have been duped or corrupted into supporting the dumb thing. They are not even the most annoying voices after they realize they have been duped but don’t have the humility to own it. No, the most annoying voices are those people who pretend to be above it all, sneering at those who have strong feelings for and against (but mostly against) as if they are the Watchers – in the omniscient position in the culture wars. I always ask these condescending folks, “What’s it like to be so above it all?” I have always detested those who talk about the abortion struggle in this mode as if they are outside of the two camps who are down there somewhere yelling at each other while the Cognoscenti elite sit on a cloud, pooh poohing the battles and getting mani-pedis.”

    • Victor Morton

      “they realize they have been duped” …

      She knows this … how, exactly? Keep in mind, she does not say “duped,” but “realize they have been.” The former is merely arrogant and self-righteous. The latter is flatly and totally untrue, and utterly beyond her (or anyone else’s) epistemological reach.

      (I will also not comment about the dark-chocolatey richness of La Babs dressing down others for lacking intellectual humility.)

      (And I haven’t even seen the daggum film yet…)

  • Doug Johnson

    Your “but” is in the wrong place. Start with the criticism then end with the respect. It works and feels so much better.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      That’s probably good advice. I’d like to have 20% more respect and 20% less criticism too.

  • Holli

    Rebecca– Please don’t take Ms. Nicolosi seriously. Nobody else in Hollywood does.

    • Monique Maryssa…

      THANK YOU FOR SAYING THAT! I think that’s the point. And anyone who did maybe for one moment begin to think about what she said… they’re gone too. For all intensive purposes, she divorced Hollywood. k, then. Buh, bye!

  • Anonymous

    Really. Who cares about the Noah controversy. Just go watch Captain America instead.

  • http://www.moralpremise.com Stanley D. Williams

    Here is one of the problems that Christians have to deal with when trying to marry their theological BELIEFS with STORYTELLING. The two are different but have the same end — to communicate values and truths to the next generation. I contend that story’s do the emotional passing on, but theology can better explain the why and how.

    But to the point: Christians feel most comfortable explaining their faith in theologically precise propositional statements that can ignore the temporality of time and space. That is, statements of faith can say things like “In all ways Jesus was tempted like man” without ever giving an example. It’s neat, it’s tidy, and because there is no time or space relegated to that theologically precise statement it’s hard to disagree. But try putting such a statement that is absent of finite time and finite space into the form of a story where time and space are required. Stories are linear (space and time dependent). Theological propositional statements of faith are instantaneous. To say that Noah was righteous is easy. But in a successful story about Noah that connects with audiences, that explains why he was righteous … the storyteller is required to demonstrate the moral dilemma Noah faced and how Noah comes to become righteous (through time and space via his character’s arc (even on an ark). So, Christians who rely on theological statements of faith (which may be accurate in the halls of a seminary) need to look at their own lives and ask, “Does my life (which is a story dependent on time and space) have an instantaneous expression of perfection and faith, or did my life (indeed, does my life presently) have an arc? Am I, have I been, will I be righteous? Or is my arc going to be like Noah’s, filled with confusion because God doesn’t speak to me as clearly and in the way I want, AND because I can’t see the clear signs God sends? I submit our personal story, like Noah’s story, is more like Aronofsky’s movie than statements of faith. Thus, the movie teaches better than faith statements, and Christians need to understand and embrace this.

    Secondly, as a Hollywood story structure guru, workshop leader, and the author of a popular book often referenced in the industry on the topic of story structure (http://www.moralpremise.com), I believe Noah is nearly perfectly structured as a story. (And there are objective standards to story structure that follow Natural Law.) Barbara’s challenge that Aronofsky’s NOAH is not a good story will be proven by the eventual box office. (And by the way, I agree with her about Bella, it was not the pro-life movie JUNO or KNOCKED UP was. Look at the box office.) If iNOAH attracts a big audience Barbara will have to admit that the story connects with audiences (a critical evaluation of whether a story is good art or not). “Just Connect” (with audiences) was one of Barbara’s mantras when she ran ACT ONE, which I was fortunate to attend years ago.


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