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Burning Question: Will Christian Moviegoers Float 'Noah's' Boat?

Leslie Gornstein
Yahoo Movies
February 18, 2014

Is it true that Russell's Crowe's upcoming Noah film veers substantially from the Biblical story? If so, does the movie stand a chance?

You mean is it dead in the water? Sorry. I had to go there. Don't flood me with hate mail. OK! OK! I'll stop now!

Director Darren Aronofsky has said that he hopes his telling of the great deluge will offer something for everyone. "Noah," which opens March 28, does, in fact, depict vignettes straight from the Bible, including a scene in which Noah goes on a wine-fueled bender. The director also paid close attention to detail, such as the precise shape of the ark, and whether the doors of the ark could be closed by anyone other than God.

[Related: Russell Crowe Gets Soaked in the 'Noah' Poster Reveal]

But Aronofsky also broadens the $125 million tale in a way that isn't sitting well with some Christian groups. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter recently, the filmmaker said, "For people who are very literal-minded, it would be great to communicate that the themes of the film are very much in line with the themes of the Bible — ideas about hope, second chances and family. If they allow that, they're going to have an incredible experience with the movie. If they don't allow it, it's theirs to lose."

For example, Crowe's Noah now reportedly dwells on modern-ish concerns such as environmentalism and overpopulation — issues that, according to some Christian marketers, aren't exactly canon.

And that could be a problem for millions of potential consumers, says brand strategist Chris Stone of the group Faith Driven Consumer, the same organization behind the I Stand With Phil campaign in support of the controversial "Duck Dynasty star. This week, the group released a survey of more than 5,000 Christians. The survey asked whether they would be "satisfied with a biblically themed movie – designed to appeal to you — which replaces the Bible's core message with one created by Hollywood."

The answer? Nope. Nope. Nope. To the tune of 98 percent.

"It may end up being a blockbuster," Stone concedes, "but in leaving that audience out, you're going to leave money on the table. We are here in large numbers. We're niche enough to reach, and large enough to matter. We have interests. We have needs. And we're saying, 'Hey, if you want to talk to us, if you want to engage with us, we're hungry for opportunities.'"

By "large enough to matter," Stone is referring to, by his reckoning, 46 million faith-driven consumers who spend $1.75 trillion annually.

The question, as posed by Faith Driven Consumer, does seem a bit loaded, with its "created by Hollywood" wording. But Stone said the survey was worded to measure consumer satisfaction.

"We're asking, 'Are you satisfied?'" Stone said. "Everything we talk about is from a consumer point of view."

The film's distributor, Paramount, staunchly rebuked the findings today. "The survey question that had the 98 percent response rate did not contain any reference to the film 'Noah,' despite the fact that the [Faith Driven Consumer's press release] implied that it did, and research from industry leading firms about the upcoming epic paints a very different picture," the studio responded in a press release (which you can read in full here).

Paramount lists Nielsen’s National Research Group (NRG) and the Barna Group as two firms that paint "a very different picture" of the film's prospects. Nielsen's tracking of "Noah," according to the studio, "has gauged, with still six-weeks to go before the film’s release and from self-defined 'very religious' moviegoers, that 83 percent of those aware of 'Noah' in the pre-release tracking have expressed interest in seeing film." The Christian polling firm Barna Group, Paramount states, "have had a similar response to NRG in their own pre-release research done of behalf of 'Noah,' including the fact that 86 percent of Christian respondents who are aware of the film, said they would recommend 'Noah' to their friends."

[Related: Burning Question: Is a Big-Screen Jesus Wave on the Way?]

As for Stone, he said he won't encourage a boycott — that's not his group's style — but he does expect some Christian viewers to avoid the film.

"They're going to stay home because they have better stuff to do," he says.

And, yes, that could definitely hurt the film's chances at blockbuster status if his prediction pans out.

"'Noah' certainly has all the bells and whistles of a modern-day blockbuster, but not having the faith community behind it would be a big drawback for its chances to break out and become a 100-plus-million-dollar hit," says box-office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations. "Odds are this will be successful, especially overseas, but to eventually reach blockbuster status it will have to debut with at least $30 million domestically."

[Related: Emma Watson Fell Ill After Bottled Water Ban on 'Noah']

To help assure the film is well received among the faithful, Paramount has hired Grace Hill Media to reach out to tastemakers in the Christian community to help foster grass-roots enthusiasm for the film. (Grace Hill recently worked with Warner Bros. on "Man of Steel," inviting pastors to early screenings and crafting a sermon comparing Jesus to Superman.)

A reviewer for family-and-faith-oriented MovieGuide recently saw a cut of "Noah." According to MovieGuide founder Ted Baehr, "Noah" doesn't significantly stray from the biblical source material and instead remains quite faithful. In fact, by the time the film comes out, the whole issue may be moot, he says.

"All of the hyper-environmentalism that's being reported, it's not in the final movie," Baehr tells me. "The environmental points are there, but they are dropped pretty quickly, and it's more oriented toward salvation, and loving God, and being fruitful.

"You know Hollywood. 'Chinatown' had 46 drafts."

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Leslie Gornstein is an entertainment writer and the host of the weekly Hollywood gossip podcast The Fame Fatale.