Films centered on faith and the messages of Jesus Christ need to feel like epic summer blockbusters in order to attract younger, secular audiences who wouldn’t otherwise be interested, mega-producer Mark Burnett told Breitbart News at a recent press event for his upcoming reimagining of Ben-Hur.
In addition to spearheading groundbreaking reality television series like Survivor and The Apprentice, Burnett and his wife and business partner Roma Downey have produced critically-acclaimed faith-based hits like the 2013 miniseries The Bible, its follow-up A.D.: The Bible Continues and feature films like Son of God.
Of the pair’s upcoming Ben-Hur — based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, not a remake of the 1959 Charlton Heston-starrer — Burnett said it was important that the film, due out August 19, feel like an action-packed summer blockbuster rather than the kind of smaller film that faith-based companies have released in recent years.
“Part of what causes the enormity of the budget are the special effects and the experience of 3D that young audiences are expecting,” Burnett said, without divulging the exact budget for Ben-Hur (reported to be close to $100 million).
“From a Christian audience perspective, it’s very important to make content that would stand on its own, whether it was Christian-focused or not,” Burnett continued. “It needs to stand alone and be high quality to attract a wide audience. And if it happens to also have a message of forgiveness and love and redemption and the story of Jesus woven in, that’s actually the right approach. Because you can’t be expecting young, secular Americans to be attracted to watch a movie that doesn’t have the right trailer and the feeling that it’s a big, exciting summer action movie. Because remember what you’re up against, look at the slate of the summer. People have only got so much money to go to so many movies. And so you’ve got to offer something pretty epic.”
Adds Downey: “I think there’s such an opportunity for this story to reach young people, and — through this action-adventure movie — bring them to the story of Jesus, bring them to the foot of the Cross.”
Ben-Hur stars Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) as Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who is falsely accused of treason and exiled by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), who has become a high-ranking officer in the Roman army. After years of brutal slavery and aided by the enigmatic horse trainer Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), Ben-Hur returns to his homeland to seek revenge, and ultimately, redemption.
The character of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) plays a much more prominent role in this film, as opposed to the 1959 iteration in which the character was seen in key moments, but never spoke.
“There’s a little bit more freedom in this story, because the story of Ben-Hur is a fictional story, although woven through it are important moments, life-changing moments for [Judah Ben-Hur] when he encounters Jesus Christ,” Downey said. “And ultimately, through grace, he is transformed, and his life is changed.”
Burnett was named president of MGM Television in December of last year, and Downey is set to launch a new faith and family-oriented channel for the company later this year that will reportedly include original programming as well as episodes of hit family television series like Little House on the Prairie and Touched by an Angel.
“I think we do really well together, considering we spend more time together than most people do. And we often joke, but it really is true, that it’s a miracle that we’re still speaking to each other,” Downey explained of how the power couple balance their professional obligations with their private lives. “My girlfriends always say to me, ‘I couldn’t even do yard work with my husband!’ But we do well. We have respect for each other and we love what we do.”
Ben-Hur is in theaters August 19.
Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter: @dznussbaum