There is a massive cultural, entertainment and religious phenomenon scheduled for Friday, February 28. So make way — He is coming back — to the theaters that is. “He” is Jesus, that ever controversial Jewish Rabbi who will be starring in the movie Son of God.
Not since the 1965 release of George Steven’s epic film, The Greatest Story Ever Told, has there been a major theatrical movie about the life of Jesus who is widely considered to be the most influential person of all time.
There is no doubt Son of God will be compared to Mel Gibson’s “tour de force,” The Passion of the Christ that depicted the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life in gruesome detail. Released in 2004, The Passion was a surprise Hollywood blockbuster grossing over $600 million in theaters alone. It set records for the highest grossing R-rated film in the United States and the highest grossing non-English language film of all time. (Remember, it had English subtitles because the film was voiced in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Thus, Hollywood “suits” were laughing at the film’s prospects and Gibson could not find a distributor until the last moment.)
Now, 10 years later will Son of God also cause jaws to drop in the executive suites of major Hollywood studios?
My prediction is yes, definitely yes, and not just in the film industry, but in the culture at large – for Son of God will soon be the number one trending topic on Twitter and that is an understatement of Biblical proportions.
Here is why I am so confident of my prediction.
On Thursday, February 6, I was fortunate to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. For those unfamiliar, this is an annual gathering where President Obama along with 4,000 religious and political leaders pack Washington’s largest ballroom to eat, pray, and love in an official Washington style “kumbaya.”
However, the Prayer Breakfast is not just a prayer breakfast it is a two-day event chock full of lunches, dinners, seminars, and receptions attended by movers and shakers in the faith community from around the nation and the world.
Hours after the official breakfast, while trying to find the location of one of the afternoon seminars, I noticed the electronic board in the hotel lobby listed a new event, “Movie trailer – Son of God presented by the film’s producers.”
After scurrying downstairs, large movie posters greeted me at the door along with a form that I was to fill out and return. The form asked if I was willing to be a “movie mobilizer” on social media, buy 1,000 or more tickets or even “Buy Out” an entire theatre.
Immediately I recognized what the Son of God producers were attempting to accomplish with this presentation — to duplicate Mel Gibson’s success with Christian grassroots movie mobilization. Gibson invented this form of movie marketing out of sheer desperation when he needed to attract a distribution company for Passion of the Christ weeks before the movie was set to open back in 2004.
The plan entails encouraging faithful churchgoers to attend the film’s opening “en masse” as an “act of faith” to “send Hollywood a message.” Small and large churches are asked to buy hundreds or even thousands of tickets with the goal of selling out theaters coast to coast thus creating movie buzz loud enough to ripple though the heavens.
My form was complete the moment producers, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey appeared and were greeted with enthusiastic applause. This is a married couple so famous, influential and successful that they should occupy the top strata reserved for pop-culture icons, yet they choose to remain low- profile celebrities.
Their most recent mega-success was 2013’s The Bible miniseries. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “The Bible averaged 11.4 million viewers during its five-week run on History Channel and became the top-selling mini-series on DVD of all time.”
But before Bible fame, Burnett was known as the man who created the reality TV genre — birthing such iconic hits as Survivor, The Apprentice, The Voice, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and Shark Tank, to only name a few off his long list of producer credits. Roma Downey earned fame starring in the television hit Touched by an Angel which aired from 1994 – 2003.
As the presentation began, Mark Burnett gave a loving tribute to his wife who initially dreamed up the “crazy idea” of a Bible mini-series. Burnett did not say this but the series was predictably rejected by major networks and that is how it ended up on the History Channel.
While producing The Bible, Mark told the audience that Roma had another wild idea — making a movie about the life of Jesus while filming The Bible mini-series. Roma’s rationale was not since 1965 had there been a major movie about his life, “so why not shoot a little extra footage here and there while the sets, cast and crew were already in place?”
Burnett told the men in the audience that they should always listen to their wife.
Then the Son of God trailer began previewing three different ten-minute segments and the audience loved every minute.
After the trailer, Roma and Mark told the crowd that they heard about the Prayer Breakfast gathering and decided to come by at the last minute. They had been touring the country non-stop generating interest in the movie because their promotion budget was only $10 million — puny by Hollywood standards. But “miraculously” Mark said the movie was going to have a wide national release in 3,000 theaters.
From their point of view, the Son of God is a “love story” and their goal is to “share the love of Christ with the world.” Mark and Roma also said that they made this film with the expectation that it will become an instant classic and stand the test of time.
Gauging from the final reaction of this elite group of about 150 national religious leaders, it became clear that promoting the Son of God was about to become everyone’s new “raison d’être.”
After the program was over, I briefly chatted with Mark Burnett and told him why I believed the film would be even bigger than The Passion of the Christ. His reply was, “We hope so.”
In the two weeks following the Prayer Breakfast I had planned to research and then write about whether the Son of God movie was actually gathering steam as a grassroots movement. Sure, the film’s commercials had begun airing on Fox News, targeting people like me, but I was unsure about the success of the national “movie mobilization” efforts.
Then, behold, on February 14, there appeared on Drudge Report a link from the Hollywood Reporter with the headline: ‘Son of God’ Church Leaders Buying Out Theaters For Screening. The report cites numerous examples such as, “Mega-church pastor Rick Warren is buying out screens in eight different theaters throughout Orange County.”
Obviously Christian soldiers are mobilizing their troops to “make a statement” with the February 28 opening now close at hand. And, according to the influential Rick Warren, “The message of the Gospel deserves to be on the big screen – and this is our chance to see it there.”
Finally, even if you are part of the 20 percent of the U.S. population that does not belong to any faith and never intend on seeing this movie, it will be nearly impossible to tune out all the media bandwidth generated by the Son of God because He is coming to a theatre near you. Or, as is the case with Cinemark theater-plex in Cincinnati, Son of God will be playing on all 13 screens at the same time, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Translation: A powerful cultural tsunami is scheduled to hit land the last weekend in February, so prepare thee the way.
Late Breaking News: Son of God producers have cut out the Satan scenes that appeared in the Bible min-series to avoid stirring up a huge controversy again over whether the actor who played Satan resembled President Obama. Hollywood Reporter broke the story and it was linked on Drudge Report.
Note from author: An edited version of this piece appeared February 19th on The Daily Beast.