Just 15 years ago, no one believed there was a large audience for Christian religious cinema. Mel Gibson made his way from one Hollywood studio to another in a failed attempt to persuade executives that a film about Jesus could be profitable. When he realized he would get no funding for “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), the religiously observant star decided to bear the burden. The picture, which depicts Jesus’ last tormented hours in Jerusalem, became an overnight hit that took everyone by surprise – except for Christians themselves. With $370 million in domestic box office takings, Gibson and Jesus are parties to the most profitable R-rated film ever (under age 17 requires accompanying adult). In retrospect, it is also one of the most important and influential films of the 21st century, having spawned a whole movie industry in the holy spirit.
Today, social networks are abuzz over a new Christian-oriented film, “Unplanned,” which was released at the end of March and again took Hollywood and the established press by surprise. The film is based on the autobiography of a woman who claims to have worked in Planned Parenthood, an American organization that offers health services, including abortions. Since then, she has become a leading anti-abortion activist.
Immediately upon its release, “Unplanned” hurtled into a very respectable fourth place in box office revenues – a huge achievement for an independent movie made for just $6 million. Its success is even more impressive in light of its R rating, the rejection of its trailer for television broadcast due to the subject’s sensitivity, and similar limitations on marketing the movie via Google ads. But when activists from the Christian right resort to social networks, traditional sales methods become irrelevant.
Film critics lambasted “Unplanned” for presenting simplistic, missionary-style propaganda. The headline of a review by Molly Jong-Fast in Britain’s Independent newspaper declared that the film “painfully aborted two hours of my life.” But reviews by believing surfers or their ads on Facebook and Twitter show that for them the film was a jolting experience. Many noted that the film lingered with them even after they left the movie theater. Some even decided to become involved in the activities of the anti-abortion movement.
“Just did my first stint praying to end abortion outside the closest Planned Parenthood facility, with more than 12 others,” Meggie Daly tweeted. And a woman named Mary Tullila wrote, “It’s a silent holocaust that needs to be seen and heard. No more denying the Truth.”
The fervor reached the highest levels of the Christian community in the United States. The top anti-abortion activist, Vice President Mike Pence, tweeted after viewing the film, “So good to see movie theaters across the country showing ‘Unplanned’… More and more Americans are embracing the sanctity of life because of powerful stories like this one.” With millions of followers on Twitter, that was a significant push for a film whose marketing campaign was largely derailed.
Rebublican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas convened an urgent hearing of the Judicial Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution to discuss what he described as an attempt to sabotage the film: It was given an R rating even though there is no violence or sex in the film, its Twitter account was suspended on the day of its release and draconian restrictions were imposed on its promotion on TV and Google.
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While Cruz portrayed the series of measures as a deliberate conspiracy by California liberals – from Hollywood studios to Silicon Valley – Chuck Konzelman, the movie’s co-director, offered a less conspiratorial but equally accusatory explanation: “Why does this only seem to happen to conservatives?” he said in the Senate subcommittee hearing, adding, “We allege no collusion between any of the social media or cable media entities. At least not in the formal sense. They require no coordinated communication or agreement between them, because they are universally progressive in their orientation, political beliefs, and worldview, and likewise strongly predisposed toward stifling conservative thought.”
Profit and influence
The Christian-themed film industry is a success story that rakes in millions of dollars. Film studios that seek to impart conservative values have proved time and again that they can draw audiences and make money, even if in smaller numbers than Hollywood. Scholars say there are tens of millions of people in the Christian right, many of them serious culture consumers who have a hard time finding movies that square with their faith. Inspired by Mel Gibson, filmmakers and actors, some with experience in Hollywood, have begun to create an entire movie scene for this huge audience. They are the driving force behind many productions and, like independent secular filmmakers, they need to devote much of their energy to fundraising. But in contrast to Gibson in 2004, donors today know their efforts can potentially both make a profit and wield influence.
The co-directors of “Unplanned,” Konzelman and Cary Solomon, are two dominant names in the industry. “God’s Not Dead” (2014), for which they wrote the screenplay, was their biggest success and also one of the symbols of the new industry: Two filmmakers with a little experience in cheap Hollywood action movies who realized a dream by making a film in the spirit of Jesus. They obtained $2 million and signed up Kevin Sorbo, star of the 1990s television series “Hercules,” for the leading role. The plot also revolved around a “rebirth” and repentance, personified by a philosophy lecturer who sees the light. People with a secular bent, including the critics, ridiculed the film, but Christian believers flocked to movie theaters. With $64 million in revenues, the film took in 32 times as much as it cost.
However, what filmmakers, backers and audience have in common is that all of them see in these films an aspect of activist culture. They are looking for success that can’t be quantified in money terms but can be entrenched in legislation. In interviews with Christian media outlets, Konzelman and Solomon asserted that they are part of a contemporary Christian effort that sees 2019 as a critical year in regard to the abortion issue. Since the rise of Donald Trump and the appointment to the Supreme Court of the Republican Brett Kavanaugh last fall, there would appear to be a court majority to annul judgments that gave women the right to make decisions about their own bodies.
This year an even more glittering Christian production is slated for release. Its title, “Roe v. Wade,” echoes the title of the 1973 Supreme Court landmark decision on abortions, and it, too, is aimed at urging Christian activists to push for the court to review the judgment. No release date has been set and the production details are being kept secret, other than the identity of the stars: the political conservative and Oscar winner Jon Voight (Angelina Jolie’s father) and Stacey Dash, the star of “Clueless.”
Call of God
The process that began with Gibson and is now reaching a new peak is not only an attempt by Christian filmmakers to distance themselves from Hollywood but also to imitate it. In contrast to advocacy clips against abortions, “Unplanned” does not try to shock audiences by means of visual images. The directors were out to generate an emotional storm in every person who sees a living human being in every ovum. As such, their activism is more sophisticated than that of “The Passion of the Christ,” which provided blood and violence and demonic Jews. The filmmakers decided to hold a Hollywood-style premiere in Los Angeles, with a red carpet and journalists from Christian media outlets. “I don’t know what a Hollywood premiere looks like,” Abby Johnson, whose story is at the heart of the film, “but I look around and see my religious sisters here, and that’s wonderful.”
Though television networks and technology corporations are having a hard time deciding whether “Unplanned” is a legitimate film or propaganda, the filmmakers and their audience are not really interested in discussing the essence of art. Their only desire is to reach a general audience. For Solomon and Konzelman, politics and art go hand in hand, and feel that others, including the mainstream media, present their fusion as a problem only regarding works by conservatives and the religious right. The fact is that, at the Golden Globes awards ceremony, when Christian Bale thanked Satan for the inspiration to play Dick Cheney in the film “Vice,” the industry did not turn its back on him. So why should two Christian directors forsake their political positions?
“We are in a war,” Solomon said in the Christian podcast “No Shame” last month. “The cornerstone of their belief is abortion,” he asserted, referring to the left. “Because if you take away abortion from them, feminism dies, and if feminism dies everything collapses, because the family comes back together the way the Lord [wanted]: ‘Man and woman together, have children, prosper, I will bless you.’ They can’t afford to lose this battle, and we can’t afford to stop the attack. We need now to go on the offensive. We have been playing defense in this country for probably a hundred years and letting them do whatever they want. Now is the time. The Lord is sending out a rallying cry… He is crying out to His people. He cried out to the Jews when they were in Egypt and He brought Moses forward.”
Konzelman seconded him: “We’ve been browbeaten as believers into thinking that when we go out into the public sphere, we’re supposed to leave our faith behind. That is one of the monstrous lies we’ve been told. One of the other monstrous lies we’ve been told is that female empowerment requires human sacrifice.”
In recent years, Hollywood has been promoting social and cultural change through the representation of new families, new femininity and ethnic and religious minorities. Rising Christian cinema also aspires to achieve social change, but in the opposite direction, using similar tools, and its proponents have powerful allies in the White House and what looks like a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Director Solomon told The New York Times that he and Konzelman hope that the film will trigger “the cultural moment that overturns Roe v. Wade. That would absolutely be a victory for us.”