Christians keep Hollywood profitable.
That's what Barbara Nicolosi, who teaches Christians the art of screenwriting, told Godspy, an online magazine, in a recent interview.
“A Christian project saved the global box office from 2001 to 2003 with Tolkien's trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Then another Christian project, The Passion of the Christ, saved the global cineplexes in 2004. And yet another Christian story is going to save the entertainment industry this year with C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
That's the movie that opens Dec. 9 and is based on the novel by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, the 20th-century Anglican author who brought many people into the Catholic Church, though he never joined them.
Nicolosi is right, but there's more: Christian audiences have always proved Hollywood's most lucrative.
Look at the highest grossing films of all time (adjusted for inflation).Three of the top 10 have Catholic themes: The Sound of Music, The Ten Commandments and The Exorcist. Half of the top 10 are family films.
The list of the top 100 is also full of surprises. Ben Hur comes in ahead of huge blockbusters like Return of the Jedi and Jurassic Park. The Bells of St. Mary's beats Return of the King and Spider-Man 2. And the amount of money taken in by The Passion of the Christ beats the legendary success of Revenge of the Sith, Harry Potter and the first two Lord of the Rings movies.
With that kind of record, Catholics ask, why doesn't Hollywood make more movies for us? But that's a little like asking, “If books by saints sell so well, why don't more authors become saints?” The better question is: Why don't Catholics make more movies for Hollywood?
After all, communicating about God through art is a Catholic specialty. Even more than other Christians, Catholics appreciate the value of sounds, sights and smells to teach spiritual lessons. The Church uses images, stories and significant actions to convey spiritual realities. So do artists.
It should be no surprise that, in the golden years of Hollywood, Catholic filmmakers like John Ford, Frank Capra, Fred Zinnemann and others dominated the new art form.
What happened after that? Some remained, but as dissenting Catholics. Others turned against the Church angrily and criticized it. In many cases, believers were squeezed out by an insular Hollywood culture. But sins of omission probably played the biggest role in leaving Hollywood bereft of Catholic influence.
After all, to end up with a Catholic artist whose work draws power from a sacramental worldview, you need to start out with a Catholic who has been told what the sacraments are in the first place. Polls suggest that, for the past two decades, the Church hasn't done a very good job of catechizing.
Thus, movies, like the other arts, are another casualty of the Church's failure to catechize Catholics in the 1960s and ’70s. But that may be changing.
The pontificate of Pope John Paul II brought about a seismic shift in the Church. Now, a seismic shift isn't an earthquake — it's a shift deep down in the earth that starts inevitable changes that aren't obvious until later. By teaching courageously and inspiring a youth movement, John Paul quietly but surely changed the direction of the Church at its most fundamental level.
After the long pontificate of John Paul, yesterday's energetic dissenters are out of energy, and the catechism teachers who were too embarrassed to catechize are more likely to be replaced by World Youth Day veterans excited by the faith.
And as young people are slowly becoming catechized again, they are growing up in a new cultural environment. Our children met Eucharistic adoration proponent J.R.R. Tolkien because he's a top draw at the theater. They associate Mel Gibson with Jesus Christ and the cross, not Mad Max and Lethal Weapon. For our children, an allegory about Christ is the movie sensation of this winter.
Yes, these improvements in catechesis and in the culture are small, incremental changes now. But if the number of Catholics who know their faith and see it validated by the culture keeps growing incrementally, it will one day hit a critical mass and begin growing exponentially.
We might be surprised to find that the seismic changes started by Pope John Paul II will move mountains in our lifetime.
Today, Christians are saving Hollywood at the box office. Tomorrow, movie theaters might just be one more place Christians save the culture.
- December 4-10, 2005