Leaving God On The Cutting Room Floor?

A former Columbia Pictures producer, Michael Cieply, recently waxed nostalgic (NYT) for a time when “studios routinely made movies with overtly religious themes for the mainstream audience.” He’s not sure films like the soon-to-be released Noah (trailer above) can undo the “years of neglect or occasional hostility” that made believers wary of Hollywood:

For months, Hollywood has been buzzing about the film’s postproduction woes. Under the guidance of Paramount’s vice chairman, Rob Moore, who says he is a devout Christian but has also been eager for a mainstream hit, “Noah” has been screened for test audiences, who have been lukewarm, regardless of their beliefs.

As described recently in The Hollywood Reporter, various editing teams tried to make the film more appealing to Christian audiences without much improving the results, eventually leaving creative control with [director Darren] Aronofsky. One complaint, according to the publication, was a sense among religious viewers that the movie, at its core, was appropriating the biblical account of the flood to preach about current concerns like overpopulation and environmental abuse. That churchgoers should be leery of a progressive agenda wrapped in Scripture is perhaps understandable, given Hollywood’s recent treatment of religious characters, who are often hypocrites and villains, driving plot lines that make, at best, a token bow toward the virtues of a faith-based life.

In response, Linker argues that religious people should be happy that Hollywood doesn’t offer them more:

Cieply’s article will no doubt provide aid and comfort to the religious right by confirming its suspicions about Hollywood’s barely concealed contempt for faith. But those who care more about artistic quality than quantitative point-scoring will have a hard time getting worked up about Cieply’s lament.

Yes, Hollywood produces relatively few films about religious subjects and themes. But that might not be a bad thing for religion. Religion is a serious subject, and Hollywood doesn’t do well with serious subjects — because Hollywood’s goal is to make money, not art. If the major studios started producing more big-budget movies on religious topics, all we’d end up with are more dumbed-down portrayals of religion.

Millman contends that economics, more than animus toward religion, drives Hollywood:

Cieply’s complaint seems to be about marketing rather than about substance – he’s interested in films that “appeal to a Christian audience.” As Cieply knows, there is a whole industry of Christian filmmaking out there providing that kind of product. Hollywood is perfectly good at flattering its audience – that’s its standard modus operandi, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Hollywood tried to break into a lucrative niche market. And if it doesn’t, then Christian filmmakers will fill the void – they are already doing so, much as Tyler Perry has done with a different lucrative niche market that Hollywood has had trouble cracking.

But what Cieply seems to want is a variety of mass-market films with a sensibility that flatters a specifically religious audience. The barriers to that, though, aren’t some kind of anti-religious bias in Hollywood, which was likely as secular in the 1950s as it now, and just as focused on the bottom line. It’s changes in film economics – and cultural changes in the larger society.