Mark Burnett and Roma Downey shined a light on a potentially huge and under-served faith-based audience for Hollywood with this weekend’s stunning $26 million opening of “Son of God,” the big-screen version of their History Channel miniseries “The Bible.”
But it’s hard to see the big opening by “Son of God” as a great thing for “Noah,” Paramount’s big-budget Biblical saga starring Russell Crowe that opens in three weeks. “Son of God” plainly tapped into the Christian market, but whether “Noah” can do that to anywhere near the same extent, particularly on the heels of Burnett’s film, is a different question.
It’s possible. The family crowd that turns out for animated films does so on a regular basis, so why couldn’t Christian moviegoers? Judging by the first-week numbers and exit polling, however, “Son of God” struck a major chord that could be difficult to match. One encouraging sign: 76 percent of the people who bought tickets to “Son of God” on Fandango said that they were planning to see “Noah.”
The two Bible-based movies could hardly be more different.
“Son of God” is a passion project and cost relatively little — Burnett bankrolled the miniseries for $22 million. It stars unknown Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado as Jesus, and was written and directed by Christopher Spencer. Working with distributor Fox, which has the home entertainment rights to “The Bible,” Burnett and Downey skipped the traditional marketing and instead went directly to Christian and Jewish groups in a grassroots pack-the-theaters campaign. Burnett leaned on major national pastors like T.D. Jakes and Rick Warren to mobilize the faithful, and it worked.
The effects-heavy “Noah” has the feel of a blockbuster. It has Darren Aronofsky directing, Crowe as the boat builder, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Watson co-starring and a $130 million production budget. Paramount has reached out to religious groups — and even the Pope — but is targeting a much broader audience and has mounted a major marketing push that included a Super Bowl commercial. It’s too early for specific projections, but the studio probably would take an opening comparable to that of “Son of God” and look to make its biggest scores abroad, where it will be shown in 3D.
We won’t know until March 28, one week after Easter when “Noah” lands in theaters, which is one week ahead of “Captain America: Winter Soldier.”
That gives “Son of God” a three-week window to capitalize. But the staying power of “Son of God” is more uncharted territory, as was its opening, which confounded analysts, most of whom saw it doing roughly half of what it took in over the three days.
“When a movie over-performs like this you have to wonder if it’s more front-loaded, because the audiences sure seemed to rush out to see it,” Contrino said. “But just like with the opening, I wouldn’t be shocked if it surprises us.”
Relativity International will be rolling out “Son of God” in more than 60 foreign markets, starting with launches near Easter in Latin America, where “Semana Santa” is a huge cultural event.
Burnett’s currently working on Chinese- and Spanish-language versions of “Son of God,” not for international markets, but for foreign-speaking enclaves of true believers in the U.S. Hispanics made up 22 percent of the first weekend audience.
In addition to the theatrical runs, Burnett and those involved are counting on “Son of God” having a long shelf life as a teaching tool in churches and Christian learning centers all over the world.
That was one of the reasons the Anti-Defamation League’s national director Abe Foxman was so enthusiastically supported the film; he felt it put the role of the Jews in Christ’s life and death in the proper historical perspective, as opposed to the last religious movie to make a major impact, Mel Gibson’s 2004 blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ.”
So don’t count Burnett out on that billion people bet.