LOS ANGELES -- At some of the largest and most influential Christian churches in the country, the lights dim and congregants watch a sneak preview of a new movie -- about golf.
The Walt Disney Co. is marketing "The Greatest Game Ever Played" to faith-based groups even though the film, about Francis Ouimet's improbable win in the 1913 U.S. Open, isn't overtly religious.
"Its themes are about family, about not giving up on your dreams, courage," said Dennis Rice, head of publicity at the Walt Disney Studios. "They are very secular virtues, but they also could potentially be Christian virtues."
Other major studios have undertaken similar marketing for films that aren't about God, including the recent father-son story "The Thing About My Folks" and even the dark drama "The Exorcism of Emily Rose." Twentieth Century Fox has launched a Web site to market family-friendly videos directly to Christian groups.
The approach reflects the next step in Hollywood's attempt to capitalize on the business lessons of "The Passion of the Christ," a surprising blockbuster last year thanks to unprecedented marketing and mobilization in churches. With Congress cracking down on indecency in television, video games and films, there's a political dimension as well.
This year, Congress dealt Hollywood a serious blow by passing legislation drafted to help parents keep their children from seeing sex scenes, violence and foul language in movie DVDs. The Family Entertainment and Copyright Act gave legal protection to fledgling filtering technology that lets users automatically skip or mute sections of movies.
Studios said it's hard to quantify potential revenue from the family-values demographic, but one industry analyst gave a sense of what's at stake. Targeted marketing of this kind happens only if a studio expects to add $25 million to $50 million to the box office gross and sell perhaps an extra 5 million DVDs, according to Harold Vogel, who heads the New York investment firm Vogel Capital Management.
For their part, churches recognize that just denouncing violent or sexually explicit films doesn't influence their content -- so their members are using buying power to support films that reflect their values.
Despite its explicit violence, "The Passion of the Christ" grossed more than $400 million at the worldwide box office and millions more on home video. The success was largely attributed to intensive marketing within churches, which reserved entire theaters for opening day while congregants invited neighbors who skip church to watch the movie.
"Increasingly, the church realizes that spiritual conversations are happening in the culture and we are in danger of being left out of the conversation," said Robert K. Johnston, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
Filmmakers behind smaller movies that otherwise might not command big marketing dollars say that support from faith-based communities encourages studios to make similar films.
"If the powers that be see there is a bigger market out there, it will make it easier for the next time around," said Paul Reiser, who wrote and co-stars in the family comedy "The Things About My Folks." To promote that movie, members of churches, synagogues and Jewish community centers were invited to more than 30 screenings in cities including Minneapolis, Cleveland and Chicago.
Disney is counting on Christian audiences to boost its "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
The film, based on the C.S. Lewis book, is a big-budget fantasy epic and the first in a series Disney hopes will rival the popularity of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Some Christians interpret the book -- a staple of children's literature -- as an allegory in which the hero, the lion Aslan, represents Jesus Christ.
Disney hired Motive Entertainment, the same group that marketed "The Passion of the Christ" to churches, to sell "Narnia" to Christian audiences. Dozens of churches nationwide will host sneak peeks of parts of the film before its December opening.
"As good business people, we'd be silly not to tap into every fan of the book and hope they will become a fan of the movie," said Disney's Rice. "We don't believe we're making a Christian movie. We believe we're following the story of the book faithfully and allowing everyone to interpret it how they want depending on how they've connected to the book."
Twentieth Century Fox, which distributed the video of "The Passion," recently launched a Web site (http://www.foxfaith.com) to target Christian and family-based films directly to a religious audience. The site includes a "church resources" link, which lists several movies and includes written guidance suggesting Bible verses to discuss in conjunction with scenes from the films.
"We recognize this is an underserved marketplace that was hungry for programming that mirrored their values," said Steve Feldstein, senior vice president of marketing at Fox Home Video.
Fox defines the market broadly. It's distributing such library titles such as "The Bible" and "The Sound of Music," but also striking deals to distribute or produce films based on top Christian best sellers by Bishop T.D. Jakes and Frank Peretti. "It's not necessarily who people are and where they live," Feldstein said, "it's how they think."
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