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Audiences Not Tempted By Traditional Religious Films

August 16, 1988

HOLLYWOOD (AP) _ Biblical film epics were once a staple of Hollywood’s success formula, but in recent years they haven’t had a prayer at the box office.

So judging from the phenomenal start of ″The Last Temptation of Christ,″ the controversy surrounding the film looks like manna from heaven for Universal Pictures.

Straightforward religious films, like Westerns, are failing to attract the viewers they did in the days of Cecil B. DeMille’s ″The Ten Commandments,″ William Wyler’s ″Ben Hur″ and George Stevens’ ″The Greatest Story Ever Told.″ They garnered huge audiences in the 1950s and early ’60s.

In 1985, ″King David,″ a big-budget saga starring Richard Gere, bombed. Two years later, ″The Mission,″ featuring Robert DeNiro and themes strongly endorsed by Christian leaders, also flopped.

But director Martin Scorsese’s ″Last Temptation,″ denounced as blasphemous by some Christian leaders, opened to packed houses last weekend. It played in seven U.S. cities and two in Canada, taking in $44,579 per screen for a three-day total of $401,211, a jubilant Universal Pictures reported.

″I think if ‘The Mission’ came out 10-12 years ago, it would have received a larger general audience,″ said Tim Penland, president of Penland Productions, specializing in the marketing of Christian films. ″Had the film not been perceived as a religious epic, it could have done better business.″

Part of the problem, Penland said, is that today’s moviegoers tend to avoid films that have overt religious messages.

Another sign of the times: Evangelist Billy Graham is quietly retrenching from his effort to use film as a tool for spreading a spiritual message.

Even as ″Last Temptation″ is drawing big crowds to see a story about a Jesus plagued by human doubt, Graham is shutting down the Burbank studios of his religious film production company, considered the world’s largest.

″Our (movie) attendance has not been what Hollywood would consider to be large,″ said Paul Kurtz, director of distribution and operations for Graham’s Worldwide Pictures Inc.

Worldwide’s Burbank production studio was shut in May, a move brought on by tight finances. More than a dozen employees were laid off, Kurtz said. Only one employee remains in the offices.

Kurtz added that some of the studio’s duties will be assumed at Graham headquarters in Minneapolis. The Burbank production site will soon be put up for sale and no plans for another Worldwide feature film are in the offing.

Worldwide, instead, will devote its filmmaking energies to low-budget films for showings in churches, prisons and nursing homes, Kurtz said.

Started in the 1950s, Worldwide was envisioned by Graham as a modern proselytizing tool.

The idea sometimes worked.

Worldwide’s ″The Hiding Place,″ a 1975 inspirational movie on Dutch Christians sheltering Jews in World War II, did respectable business and received satisfactory reviews.

But ″Caught,″ a 1987 Worldwide release about a boy looking for life’s answers in Amsterdam, was a commericial failure and was panned. The film, starring Jill Ireland, stopped at U.S. theaters only briefly and is scheduled for an October release in Canada.

Worldwide’s dwindling fortunes are not isolated.

″Going to see a religious film is not high on anybody’s list, especially when you see how many films are out there for theatrical release,″ Penland said. ″No matter how much they (Worldwide) tried to hide it, audiences saw their films as extensions of Billy Graham.

″I think we’ve reached a period (in religious filmmaking) where to attract an audience, we have to have mainstream appeal.″