Literary agent Marty Bowen had represented screenwriter Mike Rich for several films, including "Finding Forrester," "The Rookie" and "Radio."
"The Nativity Story" continues Hollywood's recent interest in religious films. (New Line)
Both men were, and are, Christians, and when Rich told Bowen in 2005 he was interested in writing a script based on the Christian nativity, Bowen encouraged him. That set off a chain of events leading to the Dec. 1 release of "The Nativity Story," which tells the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus.
"The Nativity Story," directed by Catherine Hardwicke ("Thirteen," "Lords of Dogtown"), hopes to make money like any other project for New Line Cinema. But it's distinctive because it prompts conversation about faith, spirituality and Hollywood's increasing interest in making films that can be marketed to religious America.
"We've got this incredible opportunity right now where the door is open in Hollywood," screenwriter Rich recently told a group of religion journalists covering the movie in Beverly Hills. "It's a different landscape right now as to the way in which Hollywood views these as feasible stories to tell."
Rich was referring to Bible stories, and he even suggested that tales about John the Baptist or the Apostle Paul might make their way to the big screen in the near future. It's not that far-fetched given the box-office record of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which many point to as the impetus for Hollywood's recent conversion. Even the middling "One Night With the King," which went into limited release from Fox in October, has pulled impressive numbers.
"New Line was more supportive of this project than any studio has been of any project that I've been involved with," said Rich. He said the studio got behind the filmmakers' approach of getting the script to various religious experts, and took necessary steps to ensure the film was ready for a Christmas 2006—not 2007—release.
"They see a market out there," said Rich, "as any studio does with any project."
New Line is building a reputation as a studio sold on marketing to faith communities. "The Lord of the Rings," "Elf," "Secondhand Lions" and "The New World" have all been aimed at Christian audiences with the help of religious marketing and public relations experts at Grace Hill Media.
Now comes "The Nativity Story," produced by Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen. Yes, that Marty Bowen, who left his post as partner at prestigious United Talent Agency not only to produce his now former client's script, but also to found Temple Hill Productions with longtime friend and former president of Davis Entertainment Godfrey, a Christian from East Tennessee.
The departures from their solid jobs in January to form Temple Hill earned coverage in industry trade publication Variety, which described the event as "a bombshell." Godfrey and Bowen now have a first-look producing deal at New Line.
"Now I have kids," said Godfrey, father to three boys. "You get to an age where you want to put something good into the world. It's not always necessarily going to be Christian-based entertainment, but hopefully the themes of the movies we make will reflect well on our own Christianity."
Rich, a father of three, said something similar.
"I never want to shortchange and show disrespect to this wonderful opportunity that I've got to tell stories," he said. "Marty years ago gave me advice that I still, to this day, keep close to my heart. He said, 'Mike, you want advice on how to make movies? Make movies you'd be proud to show your grandchildren.'"
Rich, Bowen and Godfrey are hardly alone in their filmmaking philosophy. Bookshelves are more and more filled with tomes about Christians working in Hollywood (see links below), and various organizations, like Act One, have sprung up to educate and connect Christians in Tinseltown.
Godfrey told reporters there are more Christians in Hollywood than even folks in Hollywood suspect. He said when Bowen mentioned "The Nativity Story" idea to New Line executive Cale Boyter over lunch, Bowen was having lunch "with someone he probably didn't know goes to Bel Air Presbyterian."
"Unbeknownst to Marty," said Godfrey, "he had found somebody who goes to church every Sunday."
Godfrey also said he had known director Hardwicke for several years, but he was unaware that she grew up attending First Presbyterian Church of McAllen, Texas.
"I knew she was from Texas," said Godfrey, "but I didn't know she grew up going to church every Sunday and that she'd read the Bible back and forth. It's not something that comes up that often in conversation. And maybe it should, and maybe it will more in the future."
He continued: "I can tell you already that this movie's experience on me has certainly opened up my ability to talk about my faith, ands as a result I know a level of people in the Hollywood business who want to have prayer breakfasts, who go to church … People come out of the woodwork, and you realize it's not that small a group, even in Hollywood."
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie's official Web site is here.
FEATURE: Righteous, Humble Joseph Stands Out in 'Nativity'
MOVIE REVIEW: 'One Night With the King'
NEWS: Major Studio Launches 'Faith' Brand for Christian Consumers
NEWS: Major Studio Will Release 'The Nativity Story' in December
COLUMN: More Than Theology at Stake in 'Da Vinci Code' Phenomenon
MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Da Vinci Code'
MOVIE REVIEW: 'End of the Spear'
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Hollywood Project: A Look Into the Minds of the Makers of Spiritually Relevant Films'
BOOK REVIEW: 'Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture'
MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'
FEATURE: How Hollywood Is Selling 'Narnia' to Christians
COLUMN: Get Real About Religion and Entertainment
MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Passion of the Christ'
MOVIE REVIEW: 'Radio'
MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Rookie'