God and Mammon in Tinsel Town

Brendan Miniter has a good column on the commercial success of “The Passion of the Christ” on — where else? — the Wall Street Journal’s OpinionJournal site: “God’s second act.” Miniter seems to be describing a case of market failure, a two-decade oversight on the part of Hollywood to produce films of interest to America’s religious audience. It is not clear to me why he is optimistic that Hollywood will let its commercial sense overcome its bias against religion, but he is:

Judging by the applause that erupted in the Brooklyn theater where I saw the film with a mixed crowd of Saturday night moviegoers, it’s getting a good reception from a much wider audience than anyone predicted. Which of course is exactly the outcome the cultural elite feared–a low-budget, subtitled movie based on the Gospels becoming a blockbuster. It broke all the rules–no one utters a word in English, it’s deeply religious and is not geared for the lucrative late-teen-to-early-20s age group–and still it became a hit. When such a film reaps $76 million at the box office on its opening weekend, it is reflective of a larger cultural phenomenon. Movies don’t have to be dumbed down to be successful, because the public is hungry for serious, moral films. And since nothing moves Hollywood like money, Mr. Gibson’s gamble may now pay off for the rest of us. This will likely have a greater impact on movie content in coming years than any government regulation ever could.
In 1956 “The Ten Commandments,” staring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as a pharaoh enslaving the Israelites, came to theaters. The film, controversial at the time for its price tag, is still one of the top grossing movies of all time. In 1959 Mr. Heston was back to star in “Ben-Hur,” another epic film with religious undertones. It won the Oscar for Best Picture. Today it is once again possible to imagine Hollywood turning out such films (especially if “The Passion” tops $200 million). Thanks to Mr. Gibson, God is back in Tinsel Town.

Contrary to the gist of Miniter’s optimism, Michael Medved has frequently commented on the general failure of Hollywood’s supposedly shrewd film industry to create the kind of family-friendly fare that almost always succeeds at the box office. It would be nice if “The Passsion of the Christ” caused the kind of ripples Miniter envisions among the Hollywood powers-that-be, and perhaps the magnitude of its success will necessarily have that effect. Miniter neglects to note, however, that Charlton Heston’s next sword-and-sandal epic after “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur” was the forgettable “El Cid.”

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