Looking to the premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming epic film Noah, starring Russell Crowe and The Lord, possibly in that order, the New York Times asks, “Can God Make It In Hollywood?” Religious movies do not always make it past the gatekeepers, and even when they do, they often fall flat with audiences, since viewers would rather watch cars go vroom! and robots go pow! than somber, toga-wearing men in beards talk about sin. The Times reports:
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.
So, is God box office poison? I decided to investigate, using sophisticated analytic measures: I typed “God” into the search engine at Box Office Mojo. Here is what I found:
• The highest-grossing movie with “God” in the title is Godzilla (1998) which has made $136,000,000 worldwide since its release. The wrathful, rampaging character of Godzilla is not that different from the world-destroying character of God in the Noah story, come to think of it.
• The next three highest-grossing movies with “God” in the title are The Godfather, The Godfather Part III, and The Godfather Part II, which is funny since if you ask an aficionado s/he will probably say that Part II is the best film, followed by the original. Also funny: The Godfather has made a whopping $135,000,000 which is more than its two sequels put together. (Sequels! Turns out they are not always the surest and most profitable bet.)
• Next comes a comedy from 1977 called Oh, God! that I’ve never heard of, and I was a Film major. It made $40,000,000 domestically, which is roughly the advertising budget of a movie like Transformers.
Perhaps the Times is right? Or perhaps I am going about this the wrong way.
Let us look instead at a list of highest performing comedies about God. Leading the pack: Bruce Almighty (2003, $243,000,000), Evan Almighty (2007, $100,000,000), and Michael (1997, $95,000,000). Now we’re talking. Those are big numbers. Seems like audiences will certainly pay to see funny movies about the Big Guy! Possibly because funny movies are less likely to sermonize and more likely to entertain. MTV seems to agree: its list of Top 10 Film Portrayals of God features lighter fare like Dogma and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Poop jokes + halos = gold. Screenwriters, take note.
What about Christian dramas? Hats off to The Passion of the Christ (2004, $370,000,000), which is to fundamentalists what Titanic was to 15-year-old girls. It is the #1 ranked Controversy Movie — because of “Anti-semitism,” and right above The Da-Vinci Code, which is #2 for being “Anti-Christian” — and the #1 highest-grossing R-rated movie of its year.
The next three highest-grossing Christian dramas are the Narnia movies, which raked in over $100,000,000 each and about $550,000,000 together. Perhaps you did not realize those C.S. Lewis stories were Christian? Understandable. Even with Aslan, the savior-lion who redeems humanity by dying and then coming back (uh, spoiler alert), they are a bit more subtle in their messaging than Passion of the Christ. Perhaps they shouldn’t count since they are also, even primarily, family fantasy films. If you take those out of the running, the 2nd most successful Christian drama is The Nativity Story (2006, $37,000,000). Ouch.
What the Times piece does not acknowledge, however, is that mainstream movies often soft-pedal religion and do very well by featuring angels, religious tropes or iconography, or a gauzy view of the afterlife. Viz: City of Angels, Angels in the Outfield, Angels & Demons, Heaven Can Wait, All Dogs Go to Heaven, Defending Your Life, the Indiana Jones movies, and lots more. America seems to like pleasantly religious movies, even if not always straightforward Christian dramas. How does Noah fit into this paradigm? If the world’s population is not wiped out in a giant flood, we will find out this spring.