Monday, April 14, 2014

The First Zoo Keeper: 'Noah' Controversy

By: Denise Young


I have you seen the movie Noah? Well,  this a story that I read when I was child in Sunday school or bible study or at home. I was really excited to see how Hollywood was going to spend this epic tale from the bible. This movie had  a lot at stake with the release this Friday of "Noah," and not just for the filmmakers or the studio that sunk a reported $160 million into the film.

In a year when Hollywood is releasing several Bible-inspired movies, "Noah" has become the test case for a number of issues -- whether Hollywood can earn the trust of fundamentalist Christians (and whether it's worth risking money and controversy even to try), whether it's possible to make big-budget spectacles that please both religious viewers and secular action-film fans, and whether directors can make Bible-themed movies that adhere to doctrine without compromising artistically or making dull propaganda.

It would be easy to see this saga as a story of just two players. On the one side is Hollywood, represented here by "Noah" studio Paramount, which would like to attract Christian viewers, and which has practically bent over backward to do so, testing half a dozen different cuts of the film with audiences and trying to win the endorsement of high-profile religious leaders. With some Christian spokespeople still complaining about the movie's deviations from the book of Genesis, Paramount agreed to release the film with a disclaimer saying that "Noah" is not meant to be an accurate retelling of the Bible story but merely a story "inspired by" the Biblical narrative.

On the other side would be various Christian organizations, including consulting firms that can help Hollywood market its films to Christians and ministries whose thumbs-up or thumbs-down will influence large numbers of congregants. So far, they've been wary of "Noah," not just because of long-standing skepticism toward Hollywood, but because of reports since "Noah" was still just a screenplay that the film strays from scripture in ways that may rankle the faithful. Will Paramount's disclaimer placate the Christian power brokers and the viewers they claim to speak for? And if it doesn't, can the film succeed without them?

Again, that binary division would be the simple way to view the "Noah" battleground. In fact, however, there are a lot more players on the field, each with his or her own agenda. All of them have something at stake with the release of "Noah," and they may not all be rooting for it to succeed.

Here, then, is a scorecard to help you tell the players and what they stand to gain or lose with the release of "Noah."

Brian Godawa. Godawa was one of the first Christians to raise a red flag over "Noah," back when it was still just a screenplay. A couple years ago, he read an early draft and
posted a lengthy review on his blog. As an author of his own expansive novelization of the Noah story, "Noah Primeval," Godawa wrote that he understood the need to grant "Noah" director/co-writer Darren Aronofsky some creative license to fill in the gaps in a Biblical account that's scant on detail and dialogue.

Nonetheless, he argued, to make Noah into an "environmentalist wacko" who ponders finishing God's work and killing off the rest of humanity (his own family) in order to protect the Earth from human rapaciousness goes against what many Christians and Jews consider the point of the story, which is that only God gets to make those kinds of decisions, and He has promised post-Noah never to destroy the world again, no matter how badly we humans muck it up.

However nuanced and thoughtful Godawa's essay was, Christian groups seized on its more intemperate phrases (notably, "environmentalist wacko") to criticize "Noah" as a work that not only was unfaithful to scripture but had a message that ran completely against Biblical teachings. Such critics weren't as careful as Godawa to note that the screenplay was not the completed film, which might turn out to be very different. Still, he had, in effect, set the terms of debate around "Noah" and had become a power broker in the process.

Whether "Noah" succeeds or fails, it's likely he'll be hired to serve as a consultant to future films. Meanwhile, "Noah"'s presence in the marketplace helps drum up interest in his book. But if the film is not a hit, he can blame the movie's alleged distance from Biblical precepts -- something he was first to point out -- making his "Noah" product the one to choose for customers seeking a "Noah" dramatization that is Biblically faithful.

Chris Stone. Three months ago, Stone was virtually unknown in Hollywood. That changed with his organization's online petition drive to get Phil Robertson reinstated on "Duck Dynasty" after his suspension over his controversial comments about gays and blacks. Stone's group,
Faith Driven Consumer, takes its name from a demographic that Stone says amounts to 46 million Christians (about 15 percent of the U.S. population) who have $1.75 trillion to spend each year and who use the Bible as a guide to how to spend it. Within days after some 266,000 of them indicated their support for Robertson, A&E lifted his suspension.

Emboldened by that success, Stone then took on "Noah," based on reports like Godawa's that had raised concerns among Christian moviegoers. Rather than launch a boycott of the film, as old-school Christian media activists might have done, the Raleigh, North Carolina-based branding strategist addressed Paramount in the only language that Hollywood understands. No, not money, but rather, market research.

Stone surveyed 5,000 of his faith-driven consumers, asking if they'd go see a film marketed as Biblical but whose message was actually a creation of Hollywood. Not surprisingly, 98 percent of them said no. Stone then issued a
press release, touting the study as an indication that faith-driven consumers were going to avoid the movie, not because of an active boycott, but because they simply felt its non-Biblical message wasn't going to resonate with them.
Paramount's first response was to dismiss Stone's research, citing studies of its own that suggested that 83 to 86 percent of religious-minded viewers were interested in seeing "Noah." At the end of February, however, Paramount (under the advice of some other Christian media activists, cited below) came up with a different solution: it would no longer market "Noah" as a literal adaptation of the Bible story but rather as a story "inspired by" the Biblical account. Paramount's disclaimer acknowledges that "Noah" takes "artistic license" with the story but insists that the movie is still "true to the essence, values, and integrity" of the original tale.

responded to this fig leaf with politeness, thanking Paramount for engaging the religious community in a dialogue over the film and responding to Christian viewers' concerns. He did not endorse the film, however. Nor is he likely to, he says, though at this writing, he still hasn't seen it yet. After all, Paramount's disclaimer doesn't change the content of the film, only the way it's marketed.

Stone says he recognizes that Hollywood is a business, that it has the right to try to make money as it sees fit, and that directors like Aronofsky have the right to make whatever movies their backers are willing to pay for. "We're not here to boycott and protest," he tells Moviefone. "Our goal is to encourage Hollywood and to provide them feedback so they can better serve our community."

He even acknowledges that the movie may still be a smash without his faith-driven consumers showing up. But he thinks Aronofsky and Paramount have missed an opportunity by not making a film that resonates with Stone's kind of moviegoers. "Our prediction is that they left money on the table," he says.

Whether or not Christian moviegoers prove Stone right by sitting this one out, he's already earned a seat at that table. Thanks to his role in the "Noah" controversy, he says, "several studios and production companies have sought our input and our feedback about particular projects and how we believe our community might react." As a result, the wave of Biblical-themed movies coming out over the next two years is a lot more likely to present those themes in a way that actually lines up with the Bible -- or at least the Bible as Stone interprets it.

John Snowden. Snowden served as the Biblical consultant to "Noah," the person in charge of making sure that the script and the completed film would pass muster with the faithful. Last month,
he wrote an article for the Christian Post, defending the movie (especially against those who criticized it without having seen it), insisting that there is a Biblical justification for everything in the movie (even Ray Winston's stowaway character, an invention by the filmmakers that Snowden says is the incarnation of the wickedness of mankind as described in the Genesis account), and that, even with all of its creative license, the movie still has value as a conversation-starter, a way for Christians to discuss the Bible with their non-Christian friends.

At issue, of course, is whether Christian groups will buy that argument. (Stone, for one, does not; he grants that some Christian moviegoers may find Snowden's approach "viable" but that most would prefer a more literalist interpretation, especially as a tool for educational outreach. "The challenge is that this is the only story of Noah that many people will ever see, and it will not be an accurate one," Stone says.) If they don't, will Snowden ever get hired as a movie's Biblical consultant again? Will the studios even bother hiring such consultants if they think that Christian groups will be impossible to please?

Phil Cooke. Christian filmmaker Cooke agrees with Snowden's argument that
people of faith should see "Noah," both to engage in scriptural discussions with non-Christian neighbors and to encourage Hollywood to adapt more Bible stories. Enough of an insider to have garnered a set visit to the "Noah" shoot, to have seen the finished film, and to have helped Paramount devise its "Noah" disclaimer strategy, Cooke has also gathered endorsements of "Noah" from like-minded Christian leaders and compiled them in a video, at Paramount's behest. That could make him look like he's in Paramount's pocket and harm his credibility among the faithful.

Nonetheless, he managed to secure some big-name endorsements, including that of Jim Daly, president of
Focus on the Family. That's a big deal, not just because of FotF's clout, but also because FotF is an organization of old-school, fire-and-brimstone cultural warriors. Daly's is a group that's often quick to blast Hollywood over perceived immoral content and to call for boycotts. No one's likely to accuse Daly of being a shill for Hollywood, so getting his endorsement says a lot for Cooke's ability to influence even those Christians who are not merely skeptical of Hollywood but openly antagonistic toward the mainstream entertainment industry.

Ted Baehr. Another endorsement for the film comes from Dr. Ted Baehr, who told the Christian Post that he approved of the movie's "primary message," which he said was "the depravity of man and the judgment of God." The chairman of the Christian Film and Television Coalition -- an advocacy group that has tried to engage constructively with Hollywood -- and editor-in-chief of
Movieguide, which rates mainstream films based on their acceptability for Christian family viewing, Baehr acknowledged that "Noah" adds characters and other details not mentioned in the Bible, but he said that "none of that takes away from the spine of the story."

Baehr, who is literally a child of Hollywood (his parents were both actors) has been working inside the system for decades. He's long been one of the first experts that Hollywood studios seek out when attempting outreach to the Christian community, and his endorsement through Movieguide reviews carries some weight. His praise for "Noah" may cause some to dismiss him as a shill, but inside Hollywood, he's likely to retain his status as a trusted advisor.

Jerry Johnson. At this writing, however, there's no Baehr review of "Noah," positive or negative, at Movieguide. Instead, there's a lengthy
mixed review by Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters. Johnson seems to have liked the film wherever it jibes with his theology and disliked it wherever it took too much license. His overall recommendation to Christian moviegoers is one of caution.

Johnson's ambivalence over "Noah" led him to suggest to Paramount the use of the disclaimer, which he wrote. The language of the disclaimer is broad enough to serve as a model for future Biblical movies that offer a loose adaptation of scripture. So Hollywood as a whole owes Johnson a debt of thanks.

Darren Aronofsky. The director and co-writer of "Noah" may have more at stake than anyone involved. After the critical and commercial success of his low-budget independent release "
Black Swan," he graduated to a bigger canvas, but the last time he made a big-budget spectacle, the result was 2006's "The Fountain," a highly personal, visually dazzling, esoteric and challenging film whose commercial failure got him exiled back to the minor leagues for a decade. "Noah" could make him an A-lister, or it could get him kicked out of the majors for good.

Beyond the stakes for his career, "Noah" is a test of whether a director as visionary and idiosyncratic as Aronofsky can succeed in Hollywood, especially when he's taking on not just the studio establishment but the Christian establishment as well. His assertion to The New Yorker that "Noah" is "the most un-Biblical Biblical epic" ever made may be a marketing challenge for Paramount, but to the faithful, it sounded like a provocation. Aronofsky told
The Hollywood Reporter that he bristled when the studio decided to test-screen half a dozen different cuts of the film for various religious and secular audiences, an indignity he says he's never had to suffer before. What's more, the decision to issue the disclaimer was made without his knowledge or permission, he told the Reporter.

For most studio directors, such tinkering and micromanaging may be par for the course, but will the studios still be able to attract top indie talent like Aronofsky if they're bound to subject them to similar meddling?

Paramount. Paramount's point person on "Noah" has been vice chairman Rob Moore, who says he is a devout Christian. Moore has acknowledged, both with the marketing disclaimer and in interviews, that "Noah" is not a literal retelling of a Bible story like "
Son of God," the current modest hit film about the life of Jesus that some critics have found rote. "This movie has a lot more creativity to it," Moore told the Reporter. Nonetheless, he insisted that the film retains "the key themes of the Noah story in Genesis -- of faith and hope and God's promise to mankind." While acknowledging the complaints of potential viewers like Godawa and Stone, he said that the literalists who will avoid the film represent a minority of Christian viewers. "Our anticipation is that the vast majority of the Christian community will embrace it," he said.

At risk for Paramount is about $300 million in production and marketing costs for "Noah," but also at risk is the studio's reputation among a skeptical group of consumers it would like to appease.
Paramount also has to focus on the global market. So far, the film is doing well in Mexico, where Aronofsky's dazzling visuals may be enough to sell the movie. And that trend may continue in other countries where appreciating Aronofsky's visual storytelling skills will be more important than understanding his English dialogue.

some Muslim countries have already banned the film, since Islam regards Noah as a prophet and, as with all other Islamic prophets, it's considered blasphemy to depict him in a graven image. In other words, the Muslims have the opposite problem from the Christians; for them, Russell Crowe's Noah is too literally the Biblical Noah.

Russell Crowe. Crowe's not the bankable leading man he was a decade ago. "Noah" could restore his status, especially since the role, as Aronofsky wrote it, calls for the intense brooding and macho heroics that are both Crowe trademarks. To help the film, Crowe has been a good soldier for Paramount, even going so far as to
visit the Vatican last week in the hope of getting an audience with Pope Francis (who wisely declined to get involved in this matter). Even though he failed to win the film a papal blessing, the image of Crowe as a penitent pilgrim is a far cry from the image of Crowe as a spoiled, phone-hurling bully. At the very least, "Noah" should rehabilitate Crowe as a leading man who plays well with others. If the movie flops, however, he'll be back in the doghouse, along with Aronofsky.

Jennifer Connelly. Connelly had been a film actress for nearly two decades before Aronofsky gave her the role that proved her a fearless dramatic actress in 2000's "Requiem for a Dream." That role earned her the part in "
A Beautiful Mind" (the first time she played Crowe's steadfast wife) that won her an Oscar. Since then, however, her career has not lived up to its potential. "Noah" could put her back on the map, or she could remain lost at sea. Still, if "Noah" fails, no one will blame Connelly.

Emma Watson. The "Harry Potter" alumna may be the only person guaranteed to come out of this melee smelling like a rose. She has a juicy part, as Noah's daughter-in-law, who clashes with Crowe's character over her pregnancy. Whether the movie floats or sinks won't depend on Watson, whose star will continue to rise, and who will continue to be seen in Hollywood as a young fashion plate and the most successful of the Hogwarts graduates.

The rest of Hollywood. The other studios are watching and waiting to see what happens with "Noah," as there will be lessons on how to make and market a movie that pleases all these various constituencies at once -- or if that's even possible.

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