Shortly before Easter, New Line Cinema executives sat down in a Los Angeles screening room for a class they nicknamed "Christianity 101."
The movie studio was preparing for the holiday release of "The Nativity Story," based on the biblical account of Jesus' birth. Taught by an evangelical preacher, a Presbyterian minister and a Pauline nun who doubled as a film critic for a Catholic magazine, the lesson was aimed at educating executives who were well-versed in slasher movies, fantasy thrillers and raunchy comedies but knew little about one of Christianity's most sacred events.
"They wanted to get a better handle on understanding the story and what it meant to people," said Sister Rose Pacatte, the critic who also directs the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City. "I never had such a good class."
New Line's religious education is the latest effort by Hollywood to get in touch with the Christian market. The status of that moviegoing set climbed in the wake of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," about the crucifixion, and Walt Disney Co.'s "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which had underlying Christian themes. Twentieth Century Fox has launched FoxFaith, a theatrical and home video distribution label for Christian films.
Lately, low-budget, independently produced faith movies also have shown resilience at the box office, even though they are playing in a fraction of the theaters a typical studio release does.
"Facing the Giants," an inspirational sports movie funded by just $100,000 in donations from the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., has grossed more than $8 million since it was released Sept. 29. "One Night With the King," about the Old Testament figure Esther, who is said to have saved the ancient Jews from death, has grossed about $13 million since its October release, although it has yet to make back its $26 million in production and marketing costs.
"It's like a tide rising," said Billy Joe Daugherty, pastor of Victory Christian Center, a Tulsa, Okla., congregation of 14,000. "The producers and companies that catch this will ride a wave. These are not one-time moviegoers."
"Nativity" also is a radical departure for New Line. The company, owned by giant Time Warner Inc., made its name with such low-budget hits as the "Nightmare on Elm Street" slasher series. More recently, it released the acclaimed "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and last year's hit comedy "The Wedding Crashers."
Costing more than $65 million to make and market, "Nativity" is one of the biggest and most expensive biblical-themed releases from a major media company. The film, recounting Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem, will open Dec. 1 on 2,700 screens, in time for the Christmas season.
"There is no paradigm for this strategy," said Russell Schwartz, head of marketing for the studio. "We talked about a smaller release. But as we have screened it more and more, it becomes a much bigger idea for us."
The film stars 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, a best actress Oscar nominee for "Whale Rider," as Mary and Shohreh Aghdashloo, a supporting actress nominee for "The House of Sand and Fog," as her cousin, Elizabeth.
The film is benefiting from unprecedented cooperation between media-savvy Christians and studios eager to tap into the audience.
This month, the studio participated in the National Media Prayer Breakfast, an annual event organized by the evangelical ministry Mastermedia International and its partner, the Hollywood Prayer Network. Gathered at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, 700 Christians in media and entertainment prayed for Hollywood to make movies with a "positive global impact." Billionaire Philip Anschutz's Walden Media and FoxFaith were also present.
"There is a new spirit from the Christian perspective on the entertainment industry, which is not to bash or boycott Hollywood but to demonstrate Christ- like love and hope," said Larry Poland, founder of Mastermedia. Religious movies were once a staple of Hollywood, which through the 1950s and early 1960s released such epics as "The Ten Commandments," "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "King of Kings." But the genre had largely fallen out of favor with studio executives, who until now believed that it had limited box-office appeal.
"Hollywood does a great job creating films that suspend belief, but when it comes to this Bible thing, it makes everybody nervous," said Erwin McManus, head pastor at the nondenominational evangelical church Mosaic, who spoke at the New Line Christianity seminar.
Tom Newman, founder of Impact Productions, a Christian movie production and marketing company based in Tulsa, said there are 54,000 evangelical churches nationwide that incorporate videos and DVDs into their worship service.