Money Changers in the Temple
As with everything in Hollywood, box office has as much to do with the economics of marketing as it does quality. The more expensive a film is, the more homogenized the content has to be to capture as many market demographics as possible (the hotly pursued four quadrants of young male/young female/adult male/adult female).
It's the reason behind the oft-repeated cries about how bland movies get the more they cost. A studio producing the latest superhero origin story has to make it appeal to both a retired Pennsylvania truck driver and a teenage web programmer in Shanghai equally (aided and abetted by precision market testing).
Spend $1.2 million on Saw (2004), and you can afford to make a bloodthirsty gore-fest because even the small—however devoted—fanbase for that kind of movie will be enough to return your investment. The same went for the successful “Christian” movies in early 2014, all but one of which (Noah) cost between $2 million and $15 million.
Such a low initial outlay means a producer can commission or buy a script that seeks out a particular movie-going sector like practicing Christians, marketing through very targeted channels like church outreach or religious advertising outlets.
As boxoffice.com senior analyst Phil Contrino told online movie news source The Wrap:
There is clearly enough of a Christian market that these movies don't need to be mainstream hits with their low budgets. And avoiding wide releases makes sense because it takes the pressure off the opening weekend and allows them to maximize their grassroots campaigns with their core, which holds marketing costs down.
Return of the Religious Epic
But Noah prompted a new wrinkle in the faith-based film, one that has to appeal to far more than just churchgoers. The concept will be tested when 20th Century Fox releases Ridley Scott's latest historical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings in December. Famous for “swords and sandals”-style films like Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Robin Hood (2010), Scott seems the perfect director to tell the big screen story of the Hebrew slaves' flight out of Egypt.
Played by Christian Bale, Moses is portrayed as a military general and right-hand man to Egyptian pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton). In typical Ridley Scott style, the film contains plenty of huge effects shots of the parting of the Red Sea, columns of Egyptian soldiers, and the violence and genocide we equate with the era.
So here's the challenge 20th Century Fox faces. Although the budget hasn't been released, the trailer makes Exodus: Gods and Kings look every bit a $200 million film, which means it needs all four quadrants to show up. And the studio is running mainstream and church-based marketing campaigns.
If the trick to getting people to like your movie and tell their friends—still the most effective form of movie advertising—is to appeal to everyone, it also poses a unique challenge to the content, not just trailers or posters. And if your film is a large holiday season blockbuster with faith-based source material, the secret might be to make it religious . . . but not too religious.
On his role as Moses, Bale recently made it plain to reporters in Los Angeles that he wasn't playing Moses as the benevolent old leader we remember from Charlton Heston's portrayal. "I think the man was likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life," the forty-year-old star said. "He's a very troubled and tumultuous man who fought greatly against God, against his calling."