The story in Hollywood goes something like this: shortly after The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004, an angry studio executive called a meeting where he berated his underlings for missing the boat. "Why did we pass on this project?" he demanded to know.
This identical anecdote is told about several different moguls, and each version could be true: Mel Gibson shopped The Passion around to every major studio in Hollywood, and the studios (strangely not seeing the commercial potential of an explosively violent religious film with Aramaic dialogue) uniformly rejected it. So Gibson financed it himself. More than $370 million later, The Passion is listed on the Internet Movie Database as the 11th top-grossing film in American history.
Hollywood made a sacred vow: never again would it be blind to the lucrative market for Christian films.
Hollywood's conversion is great news for evangelical Christian publishers, who have seen exploding interest in their properties in the past few years. Most major Christian publishing houses have at least one novel that's been optioned for film, meaning that a studio or producer has purchased the rights to turn the story into a movie or television program at some future date. But while many options languish indefinitely and ultimately expire, a surprising number of these projects are in some stage of actual development.
Needless to say, it's a brave new multiplex for Christian authors and publishers. Not only are studios seeking out films that don't blitzkrieg viewers with the F-bomb, but they're allowing—even encouraging—Christian filmmakers to use explicit faith language and content. At FoxFaith, the family-friendly division Twentieth Century Fox created in 2006 to acquire and distribute Christian-content films, "a movie has to have content that would appeal to the Christian market or be derived from the work of a Christian author," says Steve Feldstein, senior v-p for corporate and marketing communications.
It wasn't always this way. Michael Landon Jr., a son of the famous TV actor and director and now an acclaimed director, writer and producer himself, remembers how hostile Tinseltown was to religion in the bad old days. In the early 1990s, Landon heard about Janette Oke's novel Love Comes Softly (Bethany House), still a bestseller even though it was published in 1979. Like his dad, Landon loved the time period, the mid-19th century, and he found Oke's novel to be a powerful story of love, faith and family in the American West. "I pitched it before there was any interest in Christian business," he tells PW. "Hollywood thought the books were dated." It took Landon a decade to get Love Comes Softly produced, but he proved the naysayers wrong: "When it aired on Hallmark in 2002, it became the highest-rated movie in the history of the channel by 40%," he says. "When that happened, it allowed for the next one, Love's Enduring Promise, to be made. That became the second-highest rated."
Pam Slay, senior v-p for publicity for Hallmark Channels (there are more than one now), says the Oke adaptations fit nicely with the network's mission "to produce and acquire programs that uplift and inspire." The fifth installment in the series, Love's Unending Legacy, premiered on April 7, and Love's Unfolding Dream will air in November, she says. In addition to high ratings on television, the DVD sales have been stellar—the DVD for Love Comes Softly topped the Christian market video charts for 2006, beating even The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Road to the Big Screen
Such small-screen profits have made Hollywood more willing to invest in the considerably more expensive world of feature filmmaking. Landon produced and directed two theatrical releases for 2007: Francine Rivers's The Last Sin Eater (Tyndale), which came out in February, and Beverly Lewis's Amish-themed novel The Redemption of Sarah Cain (Bethany House), with a planned August release. He says both films had budgets in the $2—$3 million range. While those are hardly the allocations of blockbusters, they're on the same level as comparable indie movies.
More lavish budgets will follow if Hollywood producers hear the music of ka-ching. Meanwhile, Christian publishers continue to sell stories to Hollywood and to cultivate business relationships in L.A. Allen Arnold, senior v-p and publisher of Nelson Fiction, has been aggressively pursuing the Hollywood angle for more than three years, educating himself about the business and meeting movers and shakers. "I read Variety cover to cover every week, much as I read PW," he says.
Nelson has three of its original novels being adapted for 2007 release. The first, a film version of Ted Dekker's thriller Thr3e, came out in January. Although the reviews weren't great ("It had a small budget, and that showed in the special effects," Arnold says), the producer—Ralph Winter of X-Men fame—believed in the audience enough to allot more money to Dekker's next picture, House (the novel was written with Frank Peretti), planned for the fall. Finally, Nelson will see the adaptation of Max Lucado's novella The Christmas Candle, which is being produced by the Weinstein Company with a hoped-for release in late 2007.
The entry of Harvey and Bob Weinstein into the Christian movie market has surprised some; Harvey Weinstein's tenure at Miramax produced films that proved controversial among Christians, including Dogma and Priest. Still, the Weinsteins have embraced Christian filmmaking in a big way. Tom Newman, partner and cofounder of Impact Entertainment, now the Weinsteins' Christian brand, says that the company hopes to release six Christian films per year, and that the Weinsteins have committed not only to funding the pictures with budgets up to $10 million, but also to paying for marketing and ads.
First up will be The Penny, based on a Joyce Meyer—Deborah Bedford novel that FaithWords will release to bookstores on June 12. Rolf Zettersten, senior v-p of the Nashville division of Hachette Book Group and publisher of FaithWords and Center Street, says that the book will launch with a 200,000-copy printing, an excellent setup for the film that is expected to release nationwide at year's end.
FaithWords has a second project in film development right now: Karen Kingsbury's novella Gideon's Gift, part of the Red Gloves series. Shooting begins this month (May) for the November movie, which will star Christian Slater and Elle Fanning. Casting is beginning on another Kingsbury novel, Like Dandelion Dust (Center Street), set for 2008.
Another 2007 film release is Bill Myers's Zondervan novel The Wager, which stars Randy Travis and will come out on August 3.
Getting the Word Out
Christian publishers are now realizing that timing and partnership are critical if they want to see theater tickets translate into book sales. "The most difficult thing for a publisher is trying to re-release a book in time for the film release," says Sue Brower, senior acquisitions editor for Zondervan. "I have had one repackaging project on hold for several months waiting for an official in-theater date. We want to cross-promote both film and novel, but this makes it difficult."
Although timing can be tight—Hollywood doesn't always understand that books can't be published on a dime—most Christian publishers have been relatively successful at re-releasing their novels in trade paper or mass market editions with a movie image on the cover. But Thomas Nelson has taken things a step further, with "added content" in its book release strategy. The spring 2007 film The Ultimate Gift, for example, was based on a book from Cook Communications, but Nelson worked with the studio to do an exclusive authorized novelization by Rene Gutteridge. In addition to the movie stills on the front cover, the Nelson edition also has photos from the set; interviews with lead actors like James Garner, Abigail Breslin and Brian Dennehy; notes from the director; and a reader's guide. Each $14.99 trade paperback comes with a DVD with music, the movie trailer and a behind-the-scenes look at the filming. "We tried to give the consumer every reason to buy the movie edition of the book," says Nelson's Arnold.
Since many other Christian novels are in the production process with no release date set yet—the novella Christmas Jars from Shadow Mountain; Robert Whitlow's debut novel, The List from Thomas Nelson; and WaterBrook's Heavens to Betsy, among others—there's no end in sight to Christian movies.