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FIRST-PERSON: Hollywood & ‘the God room’

NEW YORK (BP)–Cell phone to her ear, “Junket Bible” in hand, the studio publicist dashed into a Park Avenue hotel lobby to face another pack of journalists waiting to catch another shuttle to yet another movie.

“You’re the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ press,” she said. “Right?”

Nope — wrong demographic.

This particular set of scribes represented Baptist Press, the Parents TV Council, Good News Magazine, the 700 Club, Eternal Word Television Network and 20 other religious outlets. They were ready to meet the talent behind a Christmas comedy called “Elf” and “Radio,” a Good Samaritan parable wrapped in a football movie.

New York City was in pre-holiday-movie mode in early October, with reporters of every stripe bouncing through tightly scheduled events promoting six new films. There were hobbits in the Regency Hotel elevators and one angel (of the Charlie variety) in the bar. Sushi, cookie and bottled-water suppliers were busy.

In the middle of it all was Jonathan Bock, a unique Hollywood publicist who keeps underlining one big statistic for studio leaders — week after week roughly five times as many people go to church as attend movies. In the past three years, his Grace Hill Media operation has helped promote 30 mainstream movies in religious media, from small films such as “A Walk to Remember” to epics such as “The Lord of the Rings.”

“We promote films with a moral message, films that encourage people to lead better lives, that explore God or hope or faith,” said Bock, a Presbyterian churchgoer and former sitcom writer. “Our goal is simple: we want Hollywood to make a ton of money from religious people. And if they’re doing it, then that means they’re successfully tapping into those themes. …

“We’ve begun to see regular occurrences of studios making subtle changes to their product so that it appeals to this sizeable audience.”

While Bock offers Hollywood a chance to reach pews, his work also offers religious-market journalists access to interviews and screenings that secular journalists take for granted. At the same time, actors and executives are hearing moral and theological questions whenever they enter what Rings director Peter Jackson has called “the God room.”

Thus, Elf producer Todd Komarnicki tried to explain how his film is an innocent salute to “the light inside of us that never dies.” Director Jon Favreau described his decision to rein in his comedic instincts to switch from PG-13 to PG. Comedian Will Ferrell said he discovered that constantly “sticking a lot of crude jokes in there” can be a copout.

And in the Radio interviews, Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. was pressed for insights into how his faith affected his portrayal of a mentally challenged man whose friendship with a high school football coach changes a Bible Belt town. The movie, which is based on a true story, contains few overt religious references — other than a church scene, a cross-stitch sampler of the “Serenity prayer” and the coach’s office shrine for Paul “Bear” Bryant of Alabama.

“God’s work is in everything I do and that is, hopefully, evident,” Gooding said. “But with this movie, it’s so much bigger than the conversation of religion. It’s about a faith in the humanity of the people and, you see, that’s about God, too.” So spiritual lessons are present, he said, even “without being specific about God’s will in the life of these people of Anderson, S.C.”

This kind of vaguely spiritual talk tends to make movie professionals nervous. It also falls short of the doctrinal rhetoric favored by Hollywood’s fiercest critics.

Meanwhile, the extremists in these two worlds — the hard-core religious right and Hollywood’s lifestyle left — may never agree to sit down and chat with tape recorders rolling, said Greg Wright of HollywoodJesus.com.

“Still, I think what Grace Hill is doing is significant,” Wright said. “When religious people actually meet Hollywood people they discover there’s no reason to get all hysterical about all of the things that they’re always getting so hysterical about. The Hollywood people are not the demons they thought they were going to be.

“Then the Hollywood people meet the religious press people and realize they’re not the dithering fools that most Hollywood people think they are. Some even ask interesting questions they haven’t heard before.

“It’s a start.”
Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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  • Terry Mattingly