On Monday, an Internet report announced the development of In the Beginning, an eye-popping 3-D movie retelling of the world’s creation as depicted in the Bible. The report then mentioned, almost offhandedly, that “TV vet David Cunningham” was signed to direct the film. Cunningham only has one feature film to his credit, the 2007 Fox-Walden live-action fantasy film The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, which grossed only $8 million here in the States. Normally a debut like that lands you in movie jail, not movie Eden. So why was Cunningham recruited by former Walden Media head Cary Granat (who is partnered with Paramount) to helm a $30 million 3-D extravaganza? In part because he’s the guy with the connections that might lure in the elusive, but almost 30 million strong evangelical Christian audience. They’re the ones who made The Passion of the Christ the highest-grossing indie of all time, with $611 million on its collection plate, and Hollywood is now going after them with a fresh zealousness.
So who is David Cunningham, and why is he so key? His father, Loren, is the founder of one of the world’s largest evangelical Christian missionary organizations, Youth With a Mission. With over 16,000 full-time volunteer missionaries in over 170 countries around the world, Y-WAM (pronounced why-wham) also trains another 25,000 short-term missionaries annually. And anyone who could effectively tap into that kind of global network would get a serious box-office boost. Moreover, back at home, Cunningham has a key credit on his filmography that will appeal to conservative audiences: While Cunningham didn’t write 2006’s controversial, right-leaning ABC docudrama The Path to 9/11, he did direct it. Before it aired, ten of the nation’s top historians, including Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Schlesinger Jr., penned an open letter of protest to ABC decrying what they called “flagrant falsehoods” and futilely calling on the network to halt its broadcast. Nick Salvatore, a professor at Cornell University who co-signed Schlesinger’s plea, says that Cunningham’s taking the helm of In the Beginning bodes well for Paramount: “It frames that letter as a badge of courage: That all these pointy-headed intellectuals signed this letter against him only rallies the conservative base.”
After Passion of the Christ’s huge success in 2004, Hollywood went crazy for the Christian audience, which normally ignored Hollywood, considering it Gomorrah West. Twentieth Century Fox, having passed on Passion despite a first-look deal with Mel Gibson’s Icon Prods., even formed the religious-film division Fox Faith in 2006, but it quickly sputtered. That same year, New Line released the $35 million The Nativity Story, which grossed only $46 million worldwide. “The assumption was that if you marketed to a Christian audience, you couldn’t help but do business,” recalls Bruce Snyder, president of domestic distribution at Fox. “Obviously, that turned out not to be the case.” The studios’ Christian initiative largely petered out, but they’ve recently become reinvigorated, and with the success of Avatar, they believe they have a new, better game plan: make religious-themed movies, but make them big, effects-packed, 3-D blockbusters, so they attract the regular moviegoing public and the heartland audience that usually shudders at the thought of Hollywood’s cavalcade of sin. As The Chronicles of Narnia ($745 million worldwide) proved, you can make the perfect five-quadrant movie: Everybody … and God. And the Bible makes for the perfect source material. Granat says that his “Genesis” tale, In the Beginning, “is a story 4 billion people already know, and to which everyone has the rights,” adding that “there’s never been a telling of the story that would appeal to all people.”
And if a Hollywood film not only interests evangelical audiences, but also serves that audience’s interests, then a powerful promotional symbiosis can occur. For example, with The Passion of the Christ, the Tulsa, Oklahoma–based Christian media agency faithHighway devised a strategy by which local churches could tack a mini-ad for their own house of worship onto customized ads for Passion, and then pay to air the ads on local cable themselves. Says former faithHighway president Shane Harwell, “The final six seconds of those custom ads would say, ‘This season, come see The Passion of the Christ, and come worship with us at First Baptist Church of Los Angeles,’ or wherever you were.” Harwell estimates that some 400 evangelical Christian pastors bought customized Passion TV commercials touting their own churches; the campaign reached as many as 24 million people, helping drive the film’s theatrical grosses to $370 million domestically. “The church has been willing to embrace Hollywood anytime it gives a nod to what they’re trying to do,” says Harwell, “which is capture the beliefs of Christians.”
This potentially lucrative outreach is why Cunningham is ideal: His father’s missionaries can be enlisted to help spread the word. Granat isn’t the only one who realized that; Cunningham was also originally wooed to direct Columbia’s Devil-themed Fall From Grace before he signed on to Beginning. Set before the creation of the world, Grace chronicles the angel Satanel’s failed rebellion against God and his transformation into the Devil; it’s like the Star Wars prequels, but with Satan standing in for Darth Vader. “Is [Cunningham] Mel Gibson?” asks the film’s producer, Todd Black (Seven Pounds, the upcoming Spider-Man reboot). “No. But David has an even greater core knowledge of the evangelical audience. He knows, biblically, what is correct and what is preached. And he has a vast understanding of what the different communities within evangelical Christianity each believe. He’s the perfect choice for Cary.” (When Cunningham bowed out, Black turned to Australian director Peter Cornwell, who made A Haunting in Connecticut, and who is now filming an elaborate $25,000 video presentation to convince Sony’s brass that his view of a 3-D heaven is a good bet. He turns it in this May.)
Meanwhile, other studios are coming to Jesus. Or at least heaven: Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures have begun storyboarding an adaptation of Paradise Lost, with Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), a practicing Christian, set to direct. Back at Sony, Will Smith is developing the celestial Angelology, based on the new Danielle Trussoni novel hitting bookstores this month, with Marc Foster (Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace) in place to helm. Every studio is hoping that the angelic and biblical roots of these stories will make their films blockbusters-and-then-some, but they know from the past Christian crash that the movies also have to be entertaining. “It starts with a good story,” says Black. “You can’t lead with, ‘Let’s go after that audience.’ We bought [Fall From Grace] because of the story. We knew we’d get that evangelical audience, too, but we bought it for the story. So if the script for In the Beginning isn’t good, well, then [they’re] screwed.”