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.)
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.
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.”