box office son of godLightWorkers Media / Hearst Productions

Liam Neeson may now officially be richer than God -- his thriller "Non-Stop" opened at No. 1 with an estimated $30.0 million -- but God did awfully well this weekend, too. "Son of God" opened in second place with an estimated $26.5 million, far more than the $15-20 million pundits had expected. (Even its distributor, 20th Century Fox, predicted just a modest $12-15 million.)

Christian-themed movies are a notoriously iffy prospect. Faith-based marketing organizations insist that there's a largely untapped audience of moviegoers out there who would gladly spend money on a film that treated their beliefs with respect, even if it came from that dreaded cesspool of sin known as Hollywood. And yet few of Hollywood's offerings have connected with that audience in the decade since "The Passion of the Christ" awakened Hollywood to the potential of Christian-themed films. Of course, "The Passion" was made and distributed independently, as are most religious-themed features these days, but none of them has reached anything like the box office heights "The Passion" achieved.

If even Christian marketers can't drive these films to box office glory greater than $5 million or so, how can the heathens in Hollywood do any better?

What Hollywood's biblical epics do offer that the independent Christian films don't is scale. Glossy production values, grand spectacle, and A-list actors and directors. "Son of God" isn't quite on that level -- it has a name producer in Mark Burnett, but it's largely a repackaging of his History Channel mini-series "The Bible." Still, it could serve as a bridge between Hollywood's ham-fisted previous efforts at tapping the Christian audience (like "The Nativity Story" or "Evan Almighty") and its upcoming big-budget Biblical epics (including this month's "Noah" and December's "Exodus") that mean to appeal to both Christian audiences and mainstream action audiences worldwide.

How did "Son of God" achieve its surprising success? Here are some possible answers, which suggest some lessons for the Biblical movies to come.

Get a trusted name on board. Usually, that means an actor or director who belongs to the Christian community. (Though it's not always a guarantee; self-professed Christian Tom Shadyac directed "Evan Almighty," a modern-day Noah comedy that many Christian viewers found irreverent.) In the case of "Son of God," that's producer Mark Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, the "Touched by an Angel" star who plays Mary in the film.

Campaign face-to-face. Burnett and Downey went on a 40-city tour last year, screening the movie for church groups and persuading churches to buy tickets in bulk when the movie finally opened this weekend. There were supposedly 500,000 tickets sold in advance, which amounts to about $4 million before the first popcorn kernel popped.

Get endorsements. Burnett and Downey solicited and received testimonials from such famous pastors as T.D. Jakes, Rick Warren, and Joel Osteen. Presumably, their millions of adherents are paying attention.

Pick an auspicious weekend. This is the same exact weekend that "Passion of the Christ" was released 10 years ago. It's also the weekend before Ash Wednesday. Most important, it's a full month before the March 28 release of "Noah," so "Son of God" will have the marketplace all to itself for four weeks.

Stick to the Scripture. In the New Testament, Jesus doesn't display a whole lot of human foibles or self-doubt (why would He?) or other character quirks. So it is in Burnett's version, where little-known Portuguese model/actor Diogo Morgado portrays Jesus as quietly confident at all times. That may not be especially interesting, in terms of the kind of human drama that captivates film critics and mainstream moviegoers, but it seems to please Biblical literalists who, after all, want to see a movie that reaffirms their faith rather than challenges it.

This is where "Noah" is already in trouble. After all, the Genesis story of the flood is just a few chapters, without a great deal of psychological detail or dialogue, so "Noah" director Darren Aronofsky felt he had to fill in some backstory. An early draft of the script leaked, and some Christian groups are already wary of the film over its supposed deviations from Scripture. The picture's prospects seem to be riding on whether those viewers will wait until opening weekend to find out if the film is as theologically incorrect as they'd feared, or whether there will be enough mainstream viewers eager to see Russell Crowe in a big-budget special effects epic to make up the difference.

Indeed, if there's a converse lesson here, it's that you don't need to please the critics. "Son of God" may be a fairly perfunctory re-enactment of the New Testament's big moments, but it delivered what its target audience wanted to see. Viewers gave it an A- grade at CinemaScore, indicating very strong word-of-mouth. The recommendations from those viewers will help the film, while badmouthing by mainstream critics will only be seen as a badge of honor.

In the works at the big studios are a Cain-and-Abel movie that Will Smith is developing, a Pontius Pilate picture, and a David-and-Goliath film. If they follow the template of "Son of God," they'll be less interested in generating good storytelling than good will -- and good pre-sale numbers.
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