Inside 'Son of God' NYC Theater Take-Over: Faithful Viewers Cry, Repeat the Gospel at Screening

Courtesy of Frank PR
Mark Burnett, Roma Downey and Gabe Lyons at Thursday's NYC "Son of God" screening.

At the first of a weekend of shows bought out by Christian nonprofit Q, the organization's founder and the movie's producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey talk to The Hollywood Reporter about what it means to have advance support in New York.

In a nearly deserted corner of Lower Manhattan on Thursday night, a faithful, diverse crowd of moviegoers gathered to watch one of the first public screenings of Son of God, the Mark Burnett-Roma Downey-produced movie about the life of Jesus Christ, based on the hit History Channel miniseries The Bible, also produced by Burnett and Downey.

The screening at the Regal Battery Park Stadium 11 multiplex was the first of an entire weekend of shows that had been bought out by Christian nonprofit organization Q. The group rented out the multiplex for every showing over opening weekend. Q was one of the first organizations to set up massive screenings of the film, which churches and religious groups throughout the country have since put together, snapping up nearly half-a-million tickets for the 20th Century Fox-distributed film ahead of its debut.

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During the movie, the diverse audience, ranging in age from kids to the elderly and filling up approximately 75 percent of the theater, was engaged in the dramatic depiction of the familiar story. They repeated popular passages from the Bible as they were said by characters in the film and acknowledged well-known scenes, laughing as Jesus triumphed over those seeking to stone a sinner in the "I'll give my stone to the first man who tells me he has not sinned" scene. They seemed shocked by the brutal depiction of Jesus' crucifixion, which includes a vivid, bloody lashing scene and images of the nails being hammered into his hands. By the end of the film, it sounded like several audience members were crying.

The screening was bookended by prayer and an intro and postfilm Q&A from Burnett and Downey, who were on hand for the event. Although both said they attended this screening as opposed to the many other showings organized by churches and religious groups throughout the country because they happened to be in New York doing publicity for the film, they both appreciated the organization's early support of the film.

"One of our first screenings was in New York. And at that time, we had been approached by [Q founder] Gabe Lyons and Pastor A.R. Bernard out of Brooklyn. They were the very first two [people] to step up and say, 'We want to create an opportunity for our community to go and see the movie ahead,' and it was the beginning of what has become this great wave of support from the church communities," Downey told The Hollywood Reporter.

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Lyons, who said Downey's and Burnett's presence at Thursday's screening was "super special," began planning the weekendlong takeover in October after seeing an early screening of the film.

"After I'd seen one of the screenings, it was just very clear to me that this movie would have quite an effect on people's hearts," Lyons told THR after Thursday's show. "It was a great opportunity for people to see this story, who had maybe never encountered -- they'd heard about Jesus but never really encountered much of his story. So that's really what motivated us to want to do that this weekend and to be able to invite our friends and so many people throughout New York … to see it."

Indeed, Lyons said he and others affiliated with his organization, which brings together Christian leaders in their 20s and 30s to talk about issues and culture, invited their friends throughout the city, including pastors and others affiliated with various churches, and encouraged them to invite their friends.

"We just invited our friends, basically, and they could invite their friends, to come and be a part of it," Lyons said.

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Lyons said he rented out the theater for the weekend to "remove the barrier" of people needing to buy tickets and make that decision. Nearly all the 18 screenings are expected to be full, Lyons said, based on registrations and RSVPs, with just 20 seats remaining at a Sunday-afternoon show and a few left at a Sunday-night show. But Lyons predicted those tickets would be gone in 24 hours.

Lyons thought it was significant that the deeply religious movie had such advance support in New York City.

"I think the fact that we're doing this in New York in some ways shows that this story is something that can be told in New York," he said. "It's not just something happening in the suburbs of America and in the Midwest, but in major cities, there are people wanting to have conversations and engage."

Although Burnett and Downey have been on the road since October, drumming up support for the film, they're heading to other religious screenings this weekend, with Burnett saying they'll be in Los Angeles Friday night and will pop up unexpectedly at other showings over the next few days.

He also teased that the film, which has already been dubbed in Spanish and subtitled in Korean for simultaneous U.S. release with the English-language version, is being prepared in another popular language in America, which they'll announce the release of and more details about next week.