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Inside the Race to Resurrect Jesus Onscreen

Tim Randy LaHaye - P 2013
Getty Images; Courtesy of Rancdy LaHaye
Tim and Randy LaHaye (inset)

Several competing projects are in the works, including one from the grandson of the "Left Behind" book series author.

This story first appeared in the March 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

It's been nine years since Mel Gibson's crucifixion drama The Passion of the Christ grossed $612 million worldwide. Now, after several false starts, competing producers are attempting a natural follow-up about Christ's resurrection.

The inside track might belong to Tim LaHaye Productions, run by Randy LaHaye, grandson of Tim LaHaye, the best-selling author of the Left Behind series of Christian books. Seven years ago, the elder LaHaye thought he had a deal with Sony's Screen Gems to produce The Resurrection from a screenplay by Lionel Chetwynd. But when Sony's then-president of home entertainment Ben Feingold was ousted in 2006, the movie was scrapped. Randy LaHaye since has been raising $20 million through private equity and says he plans to shoot the Chetwynd script next year for release around Easter 2015. Sony will get $465,000 for the Chetwynd script and its development work, as well as a first look for U.S. distribution. "Our goal is to shoot some of it in Israel, where Jesus walked and the disciples spoke to one another," says Randy LaHaye.

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Close on the LaHayes' heels is American Trademark Pictures, which says it has $30 million to produce and $45 million from FilmCrest (the company that provided the initial P&A funding for Passion) to release The Resurrection of the Christ -- though the title could change to Golgotha, a reference to the place where Jesus was crucified. Plans are to film 80 percent in Italy and 20 percent in Israel from a script by Dan Gordon (The Hurricane, Wyatt Earp). Jonas McCord, who executive produced the 1986 film The Young Riders and a slew of TV series, will direct what the filmmakers are treating as the first installment in a trilogy. "Ours is a Ridley Scott, Gladiator approach, told from the perspective of the Romans," says producer Bill McKay.

There's also The Messiah, from a nonprofit called In Jesus' Name Productions, which describes its film as exploring "the events surrounding Jesus' death, resurrection and Pentecost." And angling for a 2015 release is a resurrection movie from executive producer David Wood, who is looking to raise $25 million through a crowd-funding campaign that asks 1 million Christians to give $25 apiece to become "spiritual producers."

Of course, just because there are an estimated 2 billion Christians in the world doesn't mean that every movie based on the religion's founder will be a Passion-size hit. The Nativity Story (2006), for example, made only $46 million worldwide on a $35 million production budget. The various Jesus projects are feeling a bit of market competition, especially with non-resurrection titles in the mix, like Mary Mother of Christ, which will be executive produced by televangelist Joel Osteen and distributed in North America by Lionsgate.

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"All the resurrection movies use the Bible as source material, but ours will rely more on special effects," boasts Wood. "We'll even show heaven and hell and see what's going on there."