And on the seventh day, they caught a movie. When the lights go down at Pope Paul VI Hall on Nov. 26, The Nativity Story will become the first feature film ever to premiere at the Vatican. The creation tale of this movie is, by Hollywood standards, pretty miraculous. Screenwriter Mike Rich told his agent last November that he would like to write a story that many Christians have seen performed every Christmas Eve of their lives--but this time without first-graders playing the wise men. "If I had brought this subject matter into the mainstream studio system four or five years ago, I don't know if I would have gotten my calls returned," says Rich, who wrote the 2002 baseball movie The Rookie.
Instead, his script, a spare, character-driven retelling of Mary and Joseph's trip to Bethlehem, was rushed into production by New Line Cinema and entrusted to an edgy director with a knack for youth culture, Thirteen's Catherine Hardwicke. Despite the challenges of reconciling Scripture with story, casting actors to play icons, constructing a Christ-era Nazareth in the Italian countryside, wrangling donkeys and camels, and figuring out how to market the first major-studio Bible epic since the genre's peak in the 1950s and '60s with films like The Ten Commandments, The Nativity Story will arrive in theaters on Dec. 1, just about a year to the day after Rich started his first draft. "God's hand is on this movie," says Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of the Rev. Billy Graham and one of several religious leaders and scholars invited to the set and early screenings.
Mel Gibson's hand is on the movie too. It was the success of Gibson's 2004 Crucifixion film, The Passion of the Christ--which no studio wanted to touch and which earned $1 billion in worldwide box-office and DVD sales when the director funded it himself--that made believers out of Hollywood executives and ushered in a flurry of faith-based filmmaking. "I could kiss Mel on both cheeks for showing Hollywood the size of this market," says Matt Crouch, son of televangelists Paul and Jean Crouch and producer of One Night with the King, the story of Esther. The movie opened in 900 theaters on Oct. 13 and has grossed $10 million so far, with lush costumes and sets, newcomer Tiffany Dupont in the title role and cameos by Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole, their first screen pairing since Lawrence of Arabia. In September, 20th Century Fox announced plans to release about half a dozen Christian-theme films a year in theaters under the banner FoxFaith. Facing the Giants, an independent evangelical football movie written and produced by a couple of Baptist ministers from Georgia, has made $7.6 million since it opened in limited release on Sept. 29. Sony has signed a production deal with Bishop T.D. Jakes, whose 2004 inspirational film, Woman, Thou Art Loosed, drew theatergoers through grass-roots marketing in black churches; and the studio has Resurrection, a film from Left Behind author Tim LaHaye, in development. Lions-gate is betting on Tyler Perry, whose first two films, Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea's Family Reunion, delivered well at the box office thanks to spiritual themes and enormous support from black churches. Hollywood, it seems, is ready to give God his close-up.