Behind the Hit Bible Miniseries: The Man Who Helps Hollywood Get Religion

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The History Channel

The Bible, the five-part, 10-hour miniseries on History, which aired its final episode Sunday, has become the biggest cable television hit of the year. It brought in almost 13 million viewers the first night and consistently garnered 10 million viewers each episode. It even regularly beat AMC’s top-rated Sunday-night series The Walking Dead. A key to the show’s success is a man who went to Hollywood with hopes of making it as a sitcom writer. Instead, he became the spiritual bridge between the entertainment industry and the tens of millions of evangelicals in the U.S.

Historically, Hollywood hasn’t paid much attention to the Christian community. Movie and TV studios are more likely to rile up prominent evangelicals in the U.S. than cozy up to them. But today, the industry seems to be tapping into the faith-based market more than ever before. And it’s not just shows with overt religious messages, although there are plenty: The American Bible Challenge on the Game Show Network, for example, has been the biggest hit in the channel’s 17-year history. The reality show Preachers’ Daughters currently airs on Lifetime. A series called The Vatican is in the works for Showtime. An epic Darren Aronofsky movie, Noah, to star Russell Crowe, is scheduled for release in 2014. And in an effort to tap into The Bible’s success before it’s even off the air, a six-hour, $20 million miniseries called Jesus of Nazareth is already in production.

The man at the center of much of this is Jonathan Bock, the founder and president of Grace Hill Media, a public-relations and marketing firm that acts as a middleman between Hollywood and the country’s faithful. “I sit on a funny fence,” says Bock, who advises movie execs on religious content, helps market those films and reaches out 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 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, but 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.)

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When he broke 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 two 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,’” Bock recalls. “’You should hire some company that does outreach to pastors or calls Christian radio stations.’ We looked everywhere, and there was nobody.”

So in 2000, Bock founded Grace Hill Media, a 1o-person firm that helps entertainment studios reach Christian audiences by marketing their content, advising producers on how to position that content for a religious audience and performing outreach to pastors, Christian organizations and faith-based news media. He helps get movies screened in churches or talked about on Christian networks. Over the past decade, the firm has advised and marketed some 350 movies and dozens of TV shows.

Before Grace Hill, Hollywood executives rarely even attempted to reach out to evangelicals, let alone a real strategy for doing so. “Most of them just haven’t grown up in a Christian background,” says Phil Cooke, a consultant who owns his own production company and describes his job as helping Christians “not suck” at the media. “For a long time, Hollywood didn’t think about this audience very much.”

That began to change with the commercial success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the 2004 film that portrays, in vivid detail, the brutal final day in the life of the biblical Jesus of Nazareth. Gibson’s movie was produced, marketed and distributed without the backing of a major Hollywood studio; more importantly, though, it had the support of a wide swath of evangelical leaders, ranging from Billy Graham to James Dobson to Rick Warren. Nearly a decade later, having made $370 million in the U.S., 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,” he says. “So what Hollywood ended up doing is what any smart businessman does — which was they toe-dipped.” In the mid-2000s, Bock says, a number of 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 special “faith-based” divisions. Meanwhile, Bock was essentially the only guy in Hollywood experienced at cultivating these connections.

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The next big turning point for Bock and his firm came with the critical and box office success of The Blind Side, a true story about a distinctly Christian family in the South that adopts a young man and nurtures him into an NFL prospect. Grace Hill marketed the movie to Christian audiences by conducting an extensive screening campaign for pastors around the country and contacting 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,” he says. “You can make a great movie and also make it a faith-filled movie.”

Hollywood may seem more in tune with evangelical audiences today. But of course it’s not as if religious themes are new to the movies. “I think it’s going back to the well of a tried-and-true set of stories,” says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. He points to the Charlton Heston classics Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, as well as films like Martin Scorsese’s 1988 movie The Last Temptation of Christ.

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Thompson says it’s been a bit harder for television to capitalize on the Bible, but considering the success of the History miniseries, he expects we’ll see more like it. “You can do The Bible as a miniseries,” Thompson says. “You can get in, you can get out, and you can get record-breaking audiences for cable. But it would be different if you’re trying to do it season after season. It’s kind of like a trip to your grandmother’s. You like her. You like visiting her. But you don’t want to move in with her.”

Bock not only helped market The Bible and advised producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, but also helped convene some 40 theologians and scholars to look over the script to make sure it was as authentic as possible. A key concern for Bock was making sure churchgoers would find the miniseries to be an accurate representation of what Christians believe to be the word of God. “One of the things that has really not been a criticism of this series is that this was biblically inaccurate,” he says. “That left people to just enjoy it for entertainment value. That’s what I think has made it so successful.”

The Bible will come out on DVD on Tuesday with just a two-day turnaround from the finale. Simon Swart, executive vice president and general manager of the North American division of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, which will distribute the miniseries on DVD, says the quick turnaround time is unusual. But Fox is trying to capitalize on its popularity. “The demand is incredibly high,” Swart says, adding that many retailers who plan to stock the DVD have already increased their orders.

Over the past decade, the “toe-dipping” Hollywood has done into the Christian market — testing direct-to-DVD movies and acquiring small Christian films while figuring out how to distribute and market them — is just now affecting Hollywood on a broader level. And Bock’s role as Hollywood’s go-to guy for all things religion is likely to grow.

“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, and the end result of what happened with The Passion of the Christ is finally playing out.”

82 comments
MDC
MDC

Was it just me?, or did the History Channel said that there was going to be a movie together with The Bible' series that talked about Obama being the "Anti-christ?

lovemydesignergenes
lovemydesignergenes

All movie watchers want the quality well-produced well-written well-acted movie. Persons of faith want a film which is accurate to their faith...as well. And a film script...set design which draws on the considerable Biblical, archaeological, other ancient history sources out there also...

This is a basic truism that applies to about any film covering a subject dear to the hearts of a large group of people.

A brilliant 20th century scholar/playwright/mystery writer said it well 

 "The Dogma IS the Drama"  (the scholar was Dorothy L. Sayers)

hummingbird
hummingbird

It's all about making money w/out having to come up with an original storyline. Religion has lined the pockets of many.

Dale Klčo
Dale Klčo

The only religion Hollywood knows is money. They're just tapping the biggest business in the world.

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

I had seen the pitches for this series on the fundamentalist teevee stations, which I watch for laughs.  Reading this, I decided to tune in to an episode, and it reminded me of the old spaghetti westerns from the '70s.  Then I had a laugh about the atheist spaghetti monster in the sky analogy.  I will watch more to see how Paul is presented because I think he is the greatest psychopath of all time.  Mostly boring stuff though.    

TomPisarek
TomPisarek

NPR had a piece on this series. It was made because last election did not go their way. The right wing agenda was beaten so create another Bible story and say you Christians in America are not heard from then put it on the History Chanel to attempt to make it believable..like it is real history. The guy who produced this is an ex paratrooper. No wonder he was so upset that they got their arse handed to them. Mention cut to the military budget or hippies and watch the right wing military go out of their minds.

Rich Wang
Rich Wang

Vh, the same fate as TLC (The Learning Channel). Once a quality network, now a sewage drain...

Vh Hurtado
Vh Hurtado

I remember when the history channel produced and aired quality shows dealing with FACTS and HISTORY. People want their fairy tales I guess

Rich Wang
Rich Wang

Television programming targets the lowest common denominator. It's a perfect marriage!

bitmaelstrom
bitmaelstrom

@Louderstill Kinda makes both points, eh? They're alienated enough to not even know what to do but they still want the money.

SalingersGhost
SalingersGhost

Most studios that started faith-based divisions in the mid 2000s have already bailed on that idea. Manka Bros. still has theirs but haven't really done much with it lately...

http://www.mankabros.com/music/faith/GraceNote/index.htm

I would imagine this will be another fad that will get some heat for a few months and then fade away again to revived again in the future.


rickporterga
rickporterga

Hollywood has a problem. A real misunderstanding of how to portray Christians. So it will  resort to the negative stereotype of some intolerant bigot. Do they exist? Ccertainly they do, but it is not the norm. It's easy to portray the Catholic priest and the Jewish Rabbi. But again, sterotypes exist here also. Christians are an easy target, we simply will not respond to the bigotry of Hollywood, it is expected. Have you noticed that the organized atheist's do not go after Muslims? Why not? They are afaid of radical Muslims. So it is easier to spit on Christians. We do not retaliate. And the Bible itself. The ratings are the story. It is in and of istelf a magnifecent work. And regardless of nay sayers and those who, with rightful freedom, reject any claim of Divine origin and purpose, it is our beacon. What it requires is that word, faith. It is anyone's choice to reject and belittle, I respect  the right others have to do just that.If you do not want to see the intrinsic core values of Torah and additonl writings, then reject them freely. I would hate to see Christain "comedians" or commentary belittling you for your free will choices. Christainity and government do not mix. Mandatory and christiany are not a comaptible concept. It's our choice to do this or mock it. I am not offended by the mocking. I am, however,amused by Hollywood. Here sits this obviously huge market and Holywood is impotent, lost and silly. Ignore the ratings. Coninue to stereotype and demean, after all, that' scriptural too. We are told, this is what they will do. This why they willhate you, for my Namesake. They work so hard to NEVER say Jesus, it is so silly. Try Yeshua and see if it's easier, since He was Jewish. Maybe Hollywood can get that right. .Shalom

roknsteve
roknsteve

The oldest known copy of the bible contains over 14,000 errors in translation.  Plus the hebrews were nothing but nomads who were surrounded by the high cultures of Greece and Egypt.  They had no culture so they made on up.  Do some research of the history of the other cultures around Israel at the time and you get the real story.   

Piacevole
Piacevole

I haven't seen it. 

 Is there the usual Hollywood disclaimer about "the people and events portrayed are fictioal.  Any resemblance to actual people or events is co-incidental."

DanMan'99
DanMan'99

MacdonaldBank, could you please shut up? You're not changing anybody's mind about anything and are putting your terrible rhymes in the comments for your own entertainment.

MacdonaldBank
MacdonaldBank

Priestly Rules For Boys of the Cloth … … …?

Priests; prey … upon boys -- like a Sloth!

Leviticus 22  -- is about; Priestly Rules …!

Never meant -- to apply to Schools!

Religion is as dark … as the Night …!

While the gays -- have to fight!

Gays have an equal right …

It’s the priests; who have to fight …!

What they do; when outta sight … … …!

www.PriestlyRules.com

lovemydesignergenes
lovemydesignergenes

@Riette Breytenbach de Kock   The history of Hollywood...shows that many movies from the Bible were made. Some of course were better done than others.  The "10 Commandments" done with Charlton Heston, while slightly dated, is still better than a fairly recent remake...And "Ben Hur" is still popular...as are some of the films done on the life death resurrection of Jesus.  Key is combining quality production/with quality script...as well as making a film that most faithful see as generally true to the faith.  

It's in the recent generation where film makers (many who perhaps were/are from a faith-) forgot how to make a movie on the Bible and draw in an audience.  Thus, a consultant like this man above, can bridge them to making a quality accurate film

lovemydesignergenes
lovemydesignergenes

@TomPisarek   NPR dones some fine things but as I recall their commentary leans far to the left. So, just as one allows for the right leaning bias of Fox news, one should take NPR's word with a large grain of salt.

 Am not sure how election loss equals Bible story (??).

  If they wanted to tap into the angst - a film on Neville Chamberlain in the 1930s would be a better target.


MDC
MDC

Athiest?

Piacevole
Piacevole

@rickporterga Would you like me to explain why I don't have all that much use for Muslims?  I'm female; that's a pretty good reason right there.  Then, there is their unfortunate tendency to think that they have The Story.  Of course, Christians think that they do, too, but they're not killing people over it, at the moment.  Islam is about 600 years younger than Christianity, and what were Christians doing six centuries ago?  The Inquisition.


As for those poor, picked-upon Christians, remember the mocking term, "village atheist?"  Perhaps someday, there will be a "village Christian."  In the same dismissive tone of voice.

roknsteve
roknsteve

@rickporterga It's not Hollywood's fault that you still believe primitive stories written by primitive people.  For instance, trumpets don't make walls fall but earthquakes do. 

lovemydesignergenes
lovemydesignergenes

@roknsteve Just curious what your source is.  And do you mean a monastic copy...or one of the many thousands of partial or whole manuscripts dating from not long after they were first written down? (for the New Testament there is a fragment of the Bible dated approximately 30 years after it would have been written down...a copy close to the original.)  And regarding the Hebrews (Jews). Have you researched this? Just one thing alone...do you know the historical, cultural, literary effect of the Bible on Western Civilization?  

TomPisarek
TomPisarek

@roknsteve I aways thought it was for crowd control. Keep the population in fear and you control them.  The Bible of Fox News not sure whicg comes out on top in the fear factor category. Fear of Hell or fear of the rest of the world with real people.

babycheeks
babycheeks

@roknsteve Pretty wild that such an erroneous book would impact billions of people. Who woulda dreamed that. It changed my life, strange isn't it?

lovemydesignergenes
lovemydesignergenes

@Piacevole The answer is threefold...Maybe see the series.Does give you a rough overview of main Bible events.  2. Read the Bible... 3. Research on your own the historical background of the Bible.  Many events have some history outside the Bible behind them (King David to name one).  And of course Jesus is an established historical figure... 

www.biblegateway.com is a free online Bible source. 



TomPisarek
TomPisarek

@lovemydesignergenes  The election loss was the reason this couple made the series. The NPR piece has the producers stating that is one of the main reasons for making the series.

rbsblackarrow
rbsblackarrow

@roknsteve @rickporterga Good example bro, you have just opened everyone's eyes.

roknsteve
roknsteve

I got that from bibliotecapleyades.com.  It's the oldest known hand-made, hand lettered copy.  I've spent over 40 years on the study of ancient documents.  The religious ones are a big waste of time.    

lovemydesignergenes
lovemydesignergenes

@TomPisarek @roknsteve Crowd control??? Have you watched the series? Wonder where the "fear" is?  

I saw the whole series.  Not one mention of "fox news".  Sounds like you're repeating someone's commentary (grin)

Piacevole
Piacevole

@lovemydesignergenes @Piacevole You are making some assumptions that perhaps you do not recognize.  One is that I seek to familiarize myself with the bible, and that is not the case.  Been there, done that.

"Established historical figures" at a great remove get a bit fuzzy.  But, in fact, that isn't really the issue.  The real issue is the extremely unlikely events often claimed as historical fact.  Some characters and events may be established and given provenance independently of biblical claims, and some. . . not so much.

If people want to watch these "dramatizations," and if they perform their usual function, which is to sell advertising time and therefore products, the making of these productions will have served its purpose.  So long as an audience exists for them, they'll be made.  I have no problem with that, but am not interested in watching them.