The Case of the Disappearing Bible
Sony’s "Soul Surfer" reveals the challenge of how to appeal to Christian and mass audiences.
Tom Hamilton prayed for the best but expected the worst. He and his family, all devoted Christians, thought they had lost their bid to keep an overt reference to the Bible in the upcoming film Soul Surfer, based on the true story of Hamilton’s daughter Bethany, who, at age 13, had her arm chewed off by a tiger shark in Kauai but returned to her board to pursue her dream of becoming a pro surfer.
When religious leaders were shown an early version of the Sony movie, set for release in April, the words “Holy Bible” had been digitally removed from the cover of the book in a scene depicting Hamilton reading in a hospital where his daughter was fighting for her life. Hamilton says producer David Zelon, an executive at Mandalay Pictures, had lobbied to tone down the film’s Christianity in an effort to broaden its appeal to non-Christian audiences. But the Hamilton family objected, and when they attended a subsequent screening, they were pleasantly surprised with what they saw.
"I could see the words bright and clear," Hamilton says. “I looked at my wife and whispered, ‘Thank you God, they put it back.’ ”
(Zelon declined comment. Says Sony in a statement, “This movie has a strong spiritual core, much like The Blind Side, and while one of the versions tested did have the scene in question, it was never unclear that the book was the Bible.”)
The dust-up over Soul Surfer illuminates Hollywood’s increasingly awkward dance with the faith-based community. After years of neglecting religious audiences, studios now know that appealing to the Christian-values set while also bringing in more secular crowds can lead to an across-the-board blockbuster like Blind Side (domestic box office: $256 million).
But flub the combination — by appearing to pander, for example — and the movie doesn’t work for anybody.
Paramount succeeded with the juggling act on the Feb. 11 release of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Bieber has said in interviews that he prays twice daily and reads the Bible regularly. Although ads on MTV make no mention of the singer’s Christianity, Paramount was also quietly screening the movie for religious leaders before showing it to other demographics. The studio was rewarded with a $30 million opening weekend.
“The movie is good clean fun, and we wanted mothers to understand that,” Paramount co-president of domestic marketing Megan Colligan says of the strategy. “We needed time for that word-of-mouth to spread.”
Paramount even sent out 100,000 printed spiritual guides touting the movie as “an opportunity to teach our children about the power of hope, prayer, faith and family,” and it distributed clips on GodTube, a religious version of YouTube that boasts 450,000 subscribers.
Christian media — which includes influential websites, radio and TV hosts and even local ministers — has proven incredibly powerful when mobilized behind certain projects. Disney insiders, for instance, credit the Christian audience for the slow box-office build of its inspirational Secretariat, which opened to only $12.7 million but grinded out nearly $60 million domestically. But some projects that capture the religious crowd fail to cross over into the mainstream.
That power is causing producers to obsess over seemingly minor details. In Soul Surfer, which stars Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as Bethany Hamilton’s parents, country singer Carrie Underwood plays a spiritual mentor to a tight-knit community of Christian surfers. In a scene in which Underwood’s character quotes scripture, some were fine with the verse but didn’t want her to acknowledge that it came from the Bible.
“Can you imagine if a character said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,’ but they acted like it was their own, like it didn’t come from President Kennedy?” Hamilton asks. “This would have been the same thing. So they relented on that point.”
Sony is no stranger to courting the faithful. Its Affirm Films label has had success producing Christian movies that were made on a shoestring budget, like the Kirk Cameron starrer Fireproof, which cost just $500,000 and earned $33 million domestically. Sony also had a hand in Facing the Giants, which was made for a measly $100,000 and returned $10 million domestically. Both rode a wave of positive word-of-mouth among churchgoers and pleas of support from conservative talk-radio hosts.
But Soul Surfer is a much bigger bet. The poster and the trailer of the movie pitch it as an inspirational sports story for the masses — which it definitely is. But there’s no hint of the Christian faith that Bethany says was crucial to her recovery and athletic comeback.
In this regard, the marketing is similar to Disney’s sports-themed Secretariat and Remember the Titans, both of which included religious elements and were pitched separately to the faithful and secular sets. On Fox’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the studio went as far as to tell Christian leaders that the resurrection of Aslan the lion represented Jesus Christ, even as others involved in the project were telling certain demographics that it did not.
In the case of another upcoming film that is striving to be Christian-friendly — the indie drama Doonby, starring John Schneider and Robert Davi — a scene showing too much cleavage was digitally altered to make it appear that the actress, Jenn Gotzon, was wearing a higher neckline than she was during the actual shoot.
The film from British writer-director Peter Mackenzie is angling for a September release, though no distributor is attached. Mackenzie knows he has a project that will appeal to American Christians (without revealing the plot, he compares the movie’s message to that of It’s a Wonderful Life). Thus, he has been showing Doonby to religious leaders, some of whom mentioned the cleavage shot. So he had some clothing added in postproduction.
“If I can make a few small changes and reach out to the faith-based audience, I’d be crazy not to do so,” Mackenzie says. “We’re not pandering. It was something I should have caught on the day of shooting, and modern technology allows us to fix this.”
Even Gotzon is on board with what she refers to as her “wardrobe enhancement” in Doonby.
“Many families won’t go to the movies nowadays because they don’t know what their children will see,” she says. “It would break my heart if families or church groups or my 90-year-old grandma didn’t want to see this movie.”
PRAISE BE WITH YOU: Films marketed heavily to faith-based audiences
- The Passion of the Christ (2004) $370.8M
- The Chronicles of Narnia: Lion, Witch and Wardrobe (2005) $291.7M
- The Blind Side (2010) $256M
- Bruce Almighty (2003) $242.8M
- Superman Returns (2006) $200.1M
- Elf (2003) $173.4M
- The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) $163.6M
- The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008) $141.6M
- Walk the Line (2005) $119.5M
- The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) $103M