Films Are His Flock
Jonathan Bock explains Christians to Hollywood
By Josh Sanburn
IN THE MONTHS LEADING UP to the March 28 release of Noah—the biblical epic by writer-director Darren Aronofsky, starring Russell Crowe—Paramount Pictures screened half a dozen versions of the film, some more overtly religious than others. The studio discovered something surprising: people didn’t really know the story And it wasn’t merely nonbelievers who had misconceptions about the tale of a man who built an ark to survive a great flood. It was Christians too.
“In some of the screenings, there were people who expressed concerns because Noah got drunk,” says Jonathan Bock, founder and president of marketing firm Grace Hill Media. “Well, that’s in the Bible. We had people talk about the townspeople making fun of Noah for building an ark. Well, that’s not in the Bible.”
Those bits of information helped Bock advise Paramount on how to market a movie that was controversial months before its release because of accusations that it doesn’t accurately portray the Genesis tale. The studio wanted Noah to be popular with the general public, but more important, it needed
to win over the tens of millions of U.S. Christians who are increasingly sought after in Hollywood. In late February, the studio released a joint statement with the National Religious Broadcasters saying the movie was not 100% biblically accurate but was true to the spirit of the scriptural story—an attempt to mollify those who had misconceptions about the tale as well as people who believed that Aronofsky’s version strayed too far from it.
In Hollywood, portraying God, Jesus and the Bible is a tricky business, and one that hasn’t been this bustling for half a century. Not since Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments has the good book been so much in demand. But it’s far from an easy sell. For faith-based entertainment, getting pastors and congregations on board is more important than a glowing review in the New York Times. If preachers tell their congregants not to see a movie, that’s bad news for studios.
Which is where Bock comes in.
“I sit on a funny fence,” says Bock, who advises movie executives on religious content and markets those films to the Christian community through churches, religious organizations and media outlets. “I help these two worlds that don’t often intersect understand each other and help them realize that they can be of great benefit to one another.” Bock is Hollywood’s spiritual guide, the religious expert studios hire when they’re interested in reaching Christians, the same way that a producer making a war movie needs a military historian. He’s there to make sure Hollywood gets Scripture right and avoids turning off the millions of American believers, which can often result in plummeting box-office numbers. The most shocking example is the outcry in the late 1980s over Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, an account of Jesus’ last days based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It ended with Christ on the Cross being tempted by Satan and envisioning himself married to Mary Magdalene. Thousands of radio stations denounced it, protesters picketed the studio’s headquarters, and the film, though critically acclaimed, became one of Scorsese’s all-time worst- performing movies.
“In the past, Christians considered Hollywood to be the enemy,” says Phil Cooke, a consultant who owns a production company and describes his job as helping Christians “not suck” at the media. “They boycotted Hollywood, but they’ve finally realized that Hollywood doesn’t respond to criticism. It responds to the box office.”
AND THE BOX OFFICE IS BOOMing. Since Bock founded Grace Hill in 2000, he has worked on about 350 films and TV shows, including last year’s The Bible miniseries, which was the highest-rated new cable show in 2013, outperforming the top-rated Walking Dead and drawing 13 million people to its premiere. The past few years have seen a slew of faith-based titles:
Lifetime’s Preachers1 Daughters, Game Show Network’s American Bible Challenge and the History Channel’s Son of God, a theatrically released movie adaptation of The Bible miniseries. Ridley Scott’s Exodus, another epic, is due in December 2014.
Bock’s latest project, Noah, is the biggest faith-based movie to hit screens in half a century, requiring one of his most extensive outreach efforts. The $130 million film is also the biggest movie to date for Aronofsky, an auteur better known for creating edgy, artistic, sometimes disturbing films like The Wrestler and the Oscar- winning Black Swan. For the past two years, Bock has advised Paramount on how to portray one of the Bible’s foremost characters.
Bock didn’t start out thinking he’d be God’s point man in Hollywood. When he got his start in television in the 1990s, he wanted to be a sitcom writer, a career trajectory that was short-lived. (He describes the one episode he wrote for the ABC show Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper as “pure comedic genius.” He’s joking.) After splitting with his writing partner in the late ’90s, he took a job in the publicity department at Warner Bros., which at the time was looking to market family-friendly movies My Dog Skip and The Green Mile. “I said to my boss, ‘I think people who go to church would really like these movies. You should hire some company that does outreach to pastors or calls Christian radio stations,’ ” Bock recalls. “We looked everywhere, and there was nobody.” Bock founded Grace Hill Media, now a 10-person firm, to fill the gap. Before he arrived, Hollywood executives rarely attempted to reach out to evangelicals, let alone devise a strategy for doing so. “Most of them just haven’t grown up in a Christian background,” Cooke says. “For a long time, Hollywood didn’t think about this audience very much.” That changed with the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a 2004 film that portrays, in vivid detail, the brutal last day of the biblical Jesus. Gibson’s movie was produced, marketed and distributed without a major studio; instead it had the support of a swath of evangelical leaders, from Billy Graham and James Dobson to Rick Warren. Nearly a decade later, having made $370 million domestically, it remains the highest-grossing R-rated film ever, according to Box Office Mojo. Suddenly, Cooke recalls, “Hollywood discovered that there are 90 million Americans who take their faith very seriously.” But Hollywood had nothing in the pipeline to capitalize on this realization. “They had no institutional knowledge of how to develop, produce, market or distribute a movie like that,” Bock says. “So what Hollywood ended up doing was what any smart businessman does—they toe-dipped.”
In the mid-2000S, studios began acquiring small Christian films and placing them in select theaters while also producing direct-to-DVD movies. Fox, New Line, Sony and Warner Bros, all created faith-based divisions. Meanwhile, Bock was pretty much the only guy in Hollywood experienced at cultivating Christian connections. He reaches out to pastors like Ken Foreman of Cathedral of Faith in San Jose, Calif., who has screened several of Bock’s projects for members of his church, and asks them to comment on the films. “He knows both communities,” Foreman says. “He can reach into both worlds and connect them.” The next big turning point for Grace Hill was the critical and box- office success of The Blind Side, a true story about a white, distinctly Christian family in the South that adopts a young African-American man and nurtures him into an NFL prospect. Grace Hill conducted an extensive screening campaign for pastors across the country and contacted Christian news outlets to generate buzz. The film proved to be a breakthrough for Bock—and Hollywood—because it projected Christian values without explicitly addressing religion. “The faith felt so organic, so real, that I think it really showed Hollywood that you can have it both ways,” Bock says. “You can make a great movie and also make it a faith-filled movie.”
Working on the TV miniseries The Bible, Bock advised producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey while convening some 40 theologians and scholars to look over the script to make sure it was as authentic as possible. One scene pastors had diverging views on included a line in which Jesus tells his disciple Peter that they are going to “change the world.” That line isn’t in the Bible, and some religious leaders wanted Jesus’ dialogue to be 100% true to Scripture. But it stayed, in part because the intent was in line with the New Testament.
While a key concern with The Bible was making sure churchgoers would find the miniseries to be an accurate representation of what Christians believe to be the word of God, Noah is a bit different. For the past few months, Aronofsky and Paramount have been at odds over the direction of the film. Paramount execs have been screen-testing versions that give more obvious nods to Scripture, while Aronofsky stood by his original vision for a movie he has called “the least biblical biblical film ever made.” And: “I don’t give a f-ck about test scores. I’m outside the test scores.”
It’s typical for a film to be screen- tested in a few different versions, but Noah went through about half a dozen, shown to predominantly Christian audiences, including one that featured religious imagery at the beginning and a Christian rock song called “Spirit Break Out” by Kim Walker-Smith played over the credits. Those screenings were when Bock discovered that a number of the faithful weren’t aware of the story as told in the Bible, including the part where Noah gets drunk once he gets off the ark.
“We all know the story we all tell our kids, which is a happy animal rainbow story,” Bock says. “But when you read the actual Scripture, it’s terrifying. We forget the part where God was basically sorry he made his creation and found them wicked. We take the bookends off that story and make it a nice sweet kids’ story that we put on billboards at church next to animal crackers.”
For Bock, the screenings illustrated how today’s pastors focus on the New Testament and a much more merciful God. And that in turn showed Paramount how crucial it was to let moviegoers know what they were getting into before they reached the theater.
“The single most important piece of information was that this was not attempting to be a 100% retelling of the story from Genesis,” says Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures. “A 100% literal retelling would not make a great film.” On Feb. 27, Paramount released its statement declaring that the movie wasn’t meant to be verbatim. A similar disclaimer appears in its marketing materials, in the movie’s trailer and on its website: “While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people world wide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.” Even though Aronofsky didn’t have the final cut, Moore says Noah is consistent with the director’s initial version, and it has received a stamp of approval from Christian leaders like Geof Morin, executive vice president of the American Bible Society, and Brian Houston, senior pastor of Hillsong Church, which includes thousands of congregants at a dozen churches around the world. Bock believes Christian audiences in general will embrace it as well. “What Darren has done is make this guy righteous and flawed, which is what is going to resonate with the Christian community, because that’s all of us,” he says. “I think they’re going to see themselves in Noah.”
And he believes the momentum behind faith-based films is more than just a blip in Hollywood. In fact, he thinks it’s a return of the Christian community’s role as a patron of the arts.
“Hollywood has developed that knowledge where it can take bigger chances,” he says. “They know who the audience is now. They know what they’re looking for. We’re just as busy as we were a few years ago, but the stakes are higher.” ■