'The Bible' Begets Big-Budget Jesus Miniseries (Exclusive)

Alex Ben Block
'The Bible' Begets Big-Budget Jesus Miniseries (Exclusive)

A version of this story first appeared in the April 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Will the success of The Bible foretell a slew of religious-themed movies and TV projects? Already in the works is Jesus of Nazareth, a six-hour, $20 million miniseries from production outfit MPCA.

“We believe the audience continues to have a hunger for life- and faith-affirming films,” says Michael Landon Jr., who is writing and producing the new version of Jesus of Nazareth with Brian Bird for Brad Krevoy’s MPCA. “The monumental success of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible just underscores that.”

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The Bible’s March 3 premiere was cable’s most-watched telecast of the year, pulling in 13.1 million viewers, with its next two episodes holding strong at 10.9 million.

Meanwhile, Showtime is developing The Vatican, Lifetime has a hit reality series called Preacher’s Daughters, GSN is airing a Bible-themed game show, and several networks (TLC, Discovery, Nat Geo) have sparked to the Amish.

On the film side, several resurrection-themed projects are in various stages of development.

Krevoy said he doesn’t have a U.S. network commitment yet but is confident that will happen. “I’m very comfortable we’re going to get plenty of takers,” he said.

The plan is to cast multiple name stars, and Krevoy hopes that includes the role of Jesus. How Christ is portrayed will have a huge impact on how the miniseries is received because recent projects that have taken liberties with the story have come under fire. Another movie called Jesus of Nazareth, being developed by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven and based on a controversial book he wrote, has been lambasted by the Christian right and now is stalled.

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Marion Rosenberg, who manages Verhoeven, denies that controversy or financing is the problem. She says it is “on a back burner” because they haven’t found the right writer.

Neither project is related to the 1977 miniseries by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, which drew high ratings when it aired on a U.S. network, but Landon and Bird say they were inspired by that version. “That was a great piece of filmmaking,” Bird says.

Landon says their version “will be traditional in the sense we’re going to stay true to the gospel, but it won’t be traditional in the sense that our version is actually gong to be made for the skeptic, not the believer.”

Says Bird: “We’re not looking to cause controversy to anybody. What we hope to do will be orthodox and faithful to the gospel and pleasing to whoever sees it. The idea of helping skeptics see Christ in a different way than they’ve ever seen him before, that’s not going to upset the choir.”

Adds Landon: “We’re going to be faithful to our favorite book of all time.”

Krevoy says development on their project began even before The Bible, though it only got the green light after the History mini became a hit.

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“Every generation should have the chance to experience this story,” says Krevoy. “It’s perfect for today with all the things happening in the world. It’s great entertainment and educational.”

Austin-based Landon says the idea for this new version came to him about seven months ago on a Sunday when he was attending church. “I called Brian and told him my take, and it resonated immediately."

Bird, who is based in Los Angeles, worked five seasons on the inspirational CBS show Touched by an Angel (which in turn was inspired by Highway to Heaven).

They then brought the idea to Krevoy, with whom they have been working on When Calls the Heart, a period drama for the Hallmark Channel about a teacher from high society who get her first classroom assignment on the rugged Western frontier. In addition to the telefilm, which airs Oct. 5, the cable channel recently ordered 10 additional episodes.

Bird said that, like Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel, he expects Jesus of Nazareth to be inspirational for the audience. “I don’t know how you do the story of the most inspirational human being who ever walked the earth and not have it be inspiring in terms of the people around him who had their lives changed,” says Bird.

Kimberly Nordyke contributed to this report.