Faith groups offset film with PR crusade

Religious groups are changing tactics and finding ways to capitalize on faith-based films

Religious groups are changing tactics and finding ways to capitalize on faith-based films

Last month, the conservative Roman Catholic order Opus Dei launched an effort to distance itself from its historical association with Silas, depicted in the new Columbia Pictures' film The Da Vinci Code as a self-flagellating, murderous monk. Yet the movie, as well as Opus Dei's campaign, has given the group a boost in visibility, garnering a deluge of calls and a huge jump in traffic to its Web site. The order has even had to add a part-time member to its two-person PR staff to handle media requests, notes Brian Finnerty, head of Opus Dei's New York-based US communications team.

"Right now, everyone in the world is calling," says Finnerty, a University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism grad who worked as a reporter at Investor's Business Daily before joining Opus Dei. "Sony has given us a huge opportunity."

While faith-based groups speaking out against mainstream movies is nothing new, what is different is their approach: Boycotts have taken a backseat to highly choreographed PR campaigns.

Campus Crusade - a worldwide ministry with more than 20,000 staff members and volunteers - reacted to Martin Scorsese's controversial 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ by attempting to buy all prints of the movie and destroy them. Now, the Orlando, FL-based group's conservative evangelical leader Josh McDowell has a different battle plan timed to coincide with the May 19 opening of The Da Vinci Code: See the movie, then read his book, The Da Vinci Code: A Quest for Truth, and discover the real facts about Christianity.

For their part, movie studios, too, are quietly changing how they approach evangelical audiences - and for good reason. A 2004 National Survey of Religious Identification estimated that there are roughly 220 million adherents to a range of Christian faiths in the US.

Last month, Sony Pictures Entertainment launched TheDaVinciDialogues.com, a Web site created in partnership with Grace Hill Media, which markets mainstream studio films to Christian audiences. The site courts evangelical Protestants, encouraging them to voice their criticism in an interactive online forum. And Grace Hill has plenty of firsthand experience with potentially heated films: The company's founder and president is Jonathan Bock, a former Warner Bros. publicity exec who has worked on faith-based campaigns for movies including Walk the Line and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

"Studios are realizing that if they tap into that market, they can produce a big hit," says S. Brent Plate, assistant professor of religion and the visual arts at Fort Worth's Texas Christian University. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ took in $370 million in US ticket sales without major marketing, Plate notes. "Everybody woke up after that," he says.

Before the November opening of Walt Disney Pictures' $100 million adaptation of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the studio partnered with faith-based outreach firm Motive Marketing to hit some of the same evangelical Christian markets as Gibson's The Passion. Armed with an estimated $6 million budget, the firm arranged sneak-peek religious-media screenings and launched a Web site, narniaresources.com, offering testimonials and workbooks to spur church-group discussion of the story's biblical allegories. In addition, EMI's Christian Music Group released a soundtrack of songs inspired by Narnia even before the film's secular soundtrack was complete.

That's fine, says Opus Dei's Finnerty, but "ultimately, people are more influenced by the movie itself than a Web site. As a Catholic, church is like my mother," he explains. "A movie saying my mother is a fraud, but there's a Web site for you to respond to issues - that's not an attractive option."

Plate has more faith in the power of the Internet. It's a valuable tool for evangelicals to spread opinions and ideas, to "make people feel like they're being heard," he says. And he adds that while The Passion had "all kinds of problems, one thing it did was get people out and talking about religion."

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