An old joke in journalism is that if you can find three examples illustrating the same theory, you’ve found yourself a trend piece. Here’s a pretty miserable example about religion at the box office:
Call it religion. Or if that makes you uncomfortable, go with the more general “spirituality.”
Whatever you call it, it’s everywhere at the multiplex these days.
In movies as varied as the dead serious “The Road,” the uplifting family picture “The Blind Side,” the biting comedy “The Invention of Lying” and even James Cameron’s sci-fi opus “Avatar,” issues of faith and morality and mankind’s place in the universe are all the rage .
Not all of these movies embrace religion. Some question human gullibility. Some ask for evidence of a higher purpose in what often seems a random universe. But whether they encourage prayer or doubt, they’re all part of the zeitgeist.
But why now?
I don’t want to even touch that first sentence. (You kidding me?) But the theory this story sets out to prove is painfully thin. Why now? Because it’s been this way for at least the past half decade—and I may be limiting it to that short a period only because my frame of reference starts in 2004. That’s when I became a reporter and also when Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” became the highest-grossing film ever, preceded by a phenomenal New Yorker piece about Gibson’s cross in getting the film made.
“The Passion” was followed by the explosion of Christian writers in Hollywood, chronicled in Hanna Rosin’s “Can Jesus Save Hollywood” for The Atlantic. An excerpt from her trip to Act One, a Christian screenwriting program:
So far Hollywood’s gamble on the Christian audience is paying off. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (a sort of The Exorcist for religion majors that pits faith against rationalism and takes the side of the Catholic priest) was the country’s top-grossing movie when I visited in September, earning $30 million in its opening weekend. Its director, Scott Derrickson, is a graduate of the evangelical university in Los Angeles, Biola, and guest teaches at Act One. The following week Emily Rose lost the top spot to Just Like Heaven, a movie that plays the priest-exorcist for cheap laughs but is generally sympathetic to the idea of a spirit world. All over Hollywood, in fact, spirits and angels were rising up on billboards touting the new fall TV season: Ghost Whisperer, Medium, Three Wishes. And while you can’t quite call it Christianity, it’s a clear sign that Hollywood is enthralled with the realm beyond.
Next we had the Christian marketing campaign surrounding the religiously themed, albeit heretical, “Da Vinci Code” (again in The New Yorker) and then another piece by Rosin titled “How Hollywood Saved God.”
Seeing a pattern? One long in place before this winter film season.