Faith on the silver screen in 2014

"Son of God," which premiers on Feb. 28, is one of the several religious movies debuting this year. (Photo by Casey Crafford.)
“Son of God,” which premiers on Feb. 28, is one of the several religious movies debuting this year. (Photo by Casey Crafford.)

It seems Hollywood is taking a step away from modern superhero movies of Batman and Man of Steel to cast its star actors, like Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, in roles of heroes from more ancient times.

With upcoming release dates of films like “Son of God,” “Noah,” “Heaven is For Real,” “Exodus” and “Mary Mother of Christ,” 2014 will be heavily focused on religion and faith for Hollywood blockbusters. According to experts, this trend is likely not a coincidence.

“Traditionally, religion has been treated rather poorly by Hollywood,” said Tim Threlfall, a professor in BYU’s acting and theatre program. “Often religious characters are portrayed as crazed zealots and religious conviction as something only the uneducated and unintellectual embrace.”

The last time America saw a notable increase in religious films was during the late 1950s and again during the time of Cecil B. DeMille, with the production of “The Ten Commandments.”

But now things seem to be changing in Hollywood, and many producers are realizing the value in religion-based films, resulting in an apparent trend.

“All studios have market researchers, acquisitions editors and media consultants,” said Megan Sanborn Jones, a theater arts professor whose area of scholarly research focuses on 19th- and 20th-century American religious performance. “They are probably discovering the same things in their research. And once one idea is financially successful, others will try the same thing until the market is saturated and demand dies away.”

According to Jones, filmmakers likely took a cue from the major success of recent Broadway plays that all tested the waters for “religion-as-entertainment.”

“In 2012, ‘The Book of Mormon,’ ‘Sister Act,’ ‘Godspell,’ ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘Leap of Faith’ all played on Broadway in an unprecedented saturation of religious plays,” Jones said. “And I believe Hollywood sees a market for religious film that has been untapped in recent years.”

According to Jones, the Bible is “one of the most exciting and relevant works of literature ever created,” so it’s not improbable huge blockbusters would attempt to make it a central focus.

“Just as Shakespeare has been done over and over again due to the strength of the stories and characters, I think scriptural stories are also a prime source for good material,” Threlfall said. “Good stories that highlight universal truths tend to make good films like Harry Potter and Star Wars. And Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Noah fall into that same category.”

This spark in faith-promoting films may speak toward a broader implication about the current state of society.

“Religion is still a powerful force in the lives of many Americans,” Threlfall said. “A religious-oriented film that does not become sectarian in any way can resonate with a large audience. Large audiences turn into large box office receipts, which is generally the motivating factor.”

The 2014 religious films are expected to bring in large box office sales. Jones thinks much of this has to do with the backing of religious leaders in the community.

“When American religious leaders support a movie as being beneficial for their congregations, the endorsed films have generally gone on to great box office success,” Jones said. “The opposite is also true — films that are condemned by religious organizations frequently do not see financial success.”

These theories will be put to test with the release of “Son of God,” 2014’s first religious movie, which premiered in theaters February 28.

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