God, Mammon, And 'Bibleman'

Some directors say a little prayer before they launch a new movie. Matthew Crouch isn't taking any chances. He plans to visit 1,900 preachers before his $20 million film, "Megiddo: Omega Code 2," hits theaters in September. That may seem like overkill--or desperation--to most of godless Hollywood. For Crouch, it is a divine marketing plan. "Megiddo" is Crouch's sequel to "The Omega Code," a film about an evil media tycoon who steals a secret Biblical code and threatens to take over the world with it, only to be thwarted at the last minute by a God-fearing motivational speaker. "Omega" earned more than $12 million in 1999, making it the highest-grossing independent film of the year. All that with scant advertising, lousy reviews from mainstream critics and no major distributor. The secret: preachers, both in the churches and on TV, exhorting their flocks to support an unabashedly Christian action drama. "Hollywood was considered Sodom and Gomorrah," says Crouch, who keeps a Bible on his desk next to those industry bibles: Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. "I truly believe that once the Christian community understands that they have a vote by buying a ticket, they will become the country's largest single market."

They are certainly on their way. Christian entertainment has emerged as a multibillion-dollar business, from movies to music, books, TV, even a fledgling Christian Wrestling Federation, where the action is less lurid and the wrestlers go by names like Apocalypse and the Saint. Much of Christian entertainment, like the "Bibleman" videos featuring a Scripture-quoting superhero, is designed as a kinder, gentler yet more searching alternative for an audience that has long felt overlooked by the prevailing media and entertainment culture. But as those products have become more successful--and the people in those industries have become savvier--the category has edged closer to the mainstream. Pop music that never mentions the word Jesus. Movies that spend as much time blowing up buildings as saving souls. As with other groups that have created their own subcultures--women, African-Americans, gays and lesbians--Christian entertainment has emerged from its sheltered infancy and has begun to straddle two worlds: the religious one that created it and the secular one it was designed to avoid. "I was watching 'Weakest Link' last night, and one of the questions was 'What country star is contemporary Christian artist Amy Grant married to?' That's cool," says Frank Breedan, president of the Gospel Music Association. "Just last year we were rejected as a Trivial Pursuit question."

It's difficult to gauge the magnitude of the Christian entertainment world. Many of the books, music and videos are still sold in small Christian stores, which makes calculating the size of the industry tricky. The CBA (formerly the Christian Booksellers Association) estimates that religious stores account for about two thirds of the $3 billion in music, books, videos and other Christian products sold annually, with the rest sold through general retailers. "The Christian booksellers trust us," says Mark Taylor, president of Tyndale House Publishers, which publishes the "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic novels. "Most general publishers don't bring a Christian perspective to the editorial side of their work, and content is of paramount importance for Christian bookstores."

Still, the mom-and-pop nature of the industry hasn't hurt business. "Left Behind" is arguably the single most successful Christian product on the market (after the Bible, of course). Tyndale has published eight books in the series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins with a total of 28.8 million copies sold. Last year "The Indwelling" became the first Christian novel ever to hit No. 1 on The New York Times's best-seller list--and that was without counting books sold in religious bookstores, which the Times does not monitor. A children's series of the books, "Left Behind: The Kids," has sold more than 7 million copies. And last year, former "Growing Pains" heartthrob Kirk Cameron starred in a "Left Behind" movie. In an unorthodox marketing move, the producers of "Left Behind" released it first on video--and sold more than 3 million copies--before finally finding movie theaters that would show it. "We got turned down in a lot of places. People across the board said, 'This is too Christian. We don't want to offend people'," says producer Joe Goodman. "But Hollywood is always about 'Show us a market that makes money, and we'll pay attention.' There's a fan base out there, but most studios don't understand that marketplace."

Hollywood may be slow to catch on, but many of the other entertainment worlds have started to. In music, a lot of major record companies have gobbled up independent Christian labels. "We've found that when you put this music in front of the masses, they will buy it. They just don't know it's there," says Bill Hearn, who estimates that 35 percent of his sales come from mainstream retailers since he sold his Christian Sparrow Records to EMI Records in 1992. "Now you can find it right alongside the soap and toothbrushes at Wal-Mart." Book publishers are getting aggressive, too. This year, Warner Books launched a Christian division, joining Doubleday, HarperCollins, Putnam--even Harlequin Romances has a Christian line. "Ten years ago Christian fiction had tidy little resolutions where God answered every need in a way that didn't reflect real life," says Rolf Zettersten, the publisher of Warner's new Christian imprint. "We have a book about a woman whose husband divorced her and she's dealing with faith issues. How can I believe in a God who lets bad things happen to me? The fiction today is not as neat."

For some Christians, going into business with corporate America is akin to making a deal with the Devil. After all, didn't Christian pop music, books, movies and the like come into being precisely because secular society didn't understand, or even respect, religious entertainment? "Publishers and authors will be tempted to water the message down, but if they do they lose the distinctiveness of the books," says Zettersten. "It's in everybody's best interest to retain their identity." It can be a difficult line to walk. Already, many of the Christian pop-music groups omit the word "Christian" from their CDs. "Our artists tend not to be very political," says the Gospel Music Association's Breedan. "They do not want to label themselves in any way that would disinvite anybody from considering their art." In fact, some people argue that less overtly religious products can be, in a way, the most evangelical entertainment of all. "One of the things we've got to get past is the need to pack the church buses full to make something successful. That's still a Christian product oriented to a Christian audience," says Jerry Rose, president of the Total Living Network and executive producer of "Encounters With the Unexplained" on Pax TV. "The idea is to take the time and the trouble to make programming that brings all people in and give them an objective look at the moral and spiritual values in their lives." Still, it raises the question that has faced most minority groups: when does crossing over become selling out?

Yet with religious entertainment reaching so many audiences, it seems almost un-christian to complain. MTV frequently features Christianacts; one group, P.O.D., had a No. 1-requested video on the hormonal "Total Request Live" last year. Crouch says that he's having a much easier time getting attention from mainstream Hollywood, and that includes image-conscious actors. Michael York, who starred in the first "Omega" movie, will be sharing the screen for the sequel with "Terminator" star Michael Biehn. "One has an idea of Christian films as rather pious and tacky," says York. " 'Omega Code' was not the greatest movie, but it delivered." The "VeggieTales" series of animated children's videos with subtle moral messages have been so successful--22 million copies sold since 1993--that a movie version will be coming out next year. And at this week's CBA Convention in Atlanta, organizers expect more than 13,000 participants, including some of the strangest people ever to attend a Christian event. "You'll see a lot of agents working the floor at CBA now," says Taylor. All those God-fearing book people are allowing in agents? Maybe the mainstreaming of Christian entertainment has gone too far.