(Florida Today) -- After centuries of inspiring millions out of the pages of the Good Book, Noah, Moses and Jesus are taking turns on the Big Screen in search of box office victory.
It is the latest sign that Hollywood is looking to the Holy Bible for inspiration — and mammon — in reaching a growing, evangelical movie-going audience, something that Space Coast religious leaders also view as a good opportunity to reach the unchurched and non-religious.
And by all accounts, the faithful will be lining up two by two this weekend to see the Old Testament blockbuster "Noah," even as others point out that Bible-themed movies often generate controversy among the devout, especially when the films take liberties with scripture.
"We're talking about taking about 300 to 400 people to go see it," said Pastor Ken Hitte, the lead pastor of the 1,000-member Discover Life Church in Melbourne, who planned to see the highly-anticipated film over the weekend.
For the past four weeks, Hitte has been preaching from the pages of the Bible based on the sweeping story of Noah, a man scriptures say was selected by God to build an ark, then save his family and hundreds of animals from an apocalyptic flood sent to destroy humanity. Other films about Moses and Mary, the mother of Jesus, will arrive later this year.
"We heard about 'Noah' last year and wanted to take advantage of it coming out and to share what the Bible says and does not say about Noah. The Bible is rich with stories that are epic, exciting, suspenseful and action-packed. I'm just thankful that it's been done," said Hitte, who will talk about Noah's mission again today.
The PG-13 epic of Noah's struggle to escape the dystopian world before the flood was expected to generate around $40 million in ticket sales this weekend, according to projections reported by Variety, a Hollywood trade publication.
The film, with its budget of $130 million, comes a decade after Mel Gibson's gamble with the graphic "The Passion of the Christ." That film, with its grim depiction of Christ's scourging and crucifixion, garnered $600 million at the box office, shutting down long-held notions in Hollywood that Bible-themed films couldn't live up to blockbuster expectations. Spiritual leaders, who often promote faith-influenced movies from the pulpit, say the universal theme of good overcoming evil is resonating with a generation hungry for change, even between the escapist munches of movie-theater popcorn.
"I think that we live in secular times, but the population is hungry and thirsty for more religion and values," said Rabbi Richard Margolis, an instructor of world religions at Eastern Florida State College in Melbourne. "When I'm teaching about religion and we come to Judaism and Christianity, you find that very few students have even read the Bible. But Moses, Noah and Jesus, these are names people are familiar with."
It's not new for Hollywood to mine the Bible for stories. There are classics such as "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur" that struck box office gold. Dozens of minor movies are also released to limited play or direct to video each year.
So far in 2014, the Holy Bible has provided inspiration for a number of big screen blockbusters that will compete with everything from Spider-Man to Captain America. But not everyone is thrilled by the attention, especially with secular treatments of stories like Noah. The film, critics point out, presents theologically challenging visions of creation using evolution and depicts the prophet as obsessed, things not supported in scriptures, critics say. The movie has been banned in Islamic nations like Egypt, Indonesia and Qatar and has been criticized as a fantasy-driven deviation from the scriptures.
"Despite a flood of media stories over many months indicating that the film replaces the biblical account with a modernistic, revisionist narrative, we remained hopeful that ultimately the filmmakers would get it right, and would be successful in reaching their target consumer audience," said Chris Stone, founder of the Christian entertainment advocacy group, Faith Driven Consumer, in a recent statement.
"Having now seen Noah, we are disappointed to report that the film misses the boat. ... This movie will be remembered by the faith community as an epic missed opportunity."
Other religious leaders agree but also hold that the movies — while captivating in the theater — won't diminish the power of the stories or weaken faith. Father Doug Bailey, director of Catholic Ministries at Florida Tech, said movies should be looked at as just that, movies. Other pastors see such movies as a chance testify to the truth of the scriptures wherever they can be found.
"A lot of it is supposition, something where you might have a director create an alternative plausibility," said Pastor Larry Caddell of Praise Cathedral Church of God in West Melbourne. "It doesn't threaten or diminish the real story at all. There's an old saying that you eat the fish, but leave the bones. I'm going to be looking for the good in the movie."
"I just like the fact that Hollywood now sees making movies about topics like Noah as profitable. I love the fact that you are seeing more Bible-themed movies. I am certainly encouraging my people that if you want good entertainment, go see it. Here we have an opportunity to show people who invest in these movies that they can be profitable and that there are consumers who are hungry for more."
Year of the Bible
Before "Noah," the faith-influenced film to beat this year was "Son of God," originally part of the made-for-TV History Channel production, "The Bible." Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, a husband and wife team who are Christians, promoted the film through evangelical programs and radio to appeal to the faithful. "Son of God," with a $22 million budget, has brought in $56 million from ticket sales since its Feb. 28 general release and is likely to generate more income with DVD and digital sales among congregations that want to show the film.
Other major movie releases this year inspired by the Bible or showcasing biblical themes include:
• "Heaven is For Real," the faith-filled story of a 4-year-old child's life-after-death encounters. This is the latest foray into film by mega-church pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes, adapted from The New York Times bestseller of the same name.
• "Mary, Mother of Christ," billed as an action movie of faith, featuring the struggles of a 16-year-old Mary. It also features the last major role of famed actor Peter O'Toole as a Hebrew prophet named Simeon awaiting the arrival of the Messiah.
• "Exodus: Gods and Kings," a highly-anticipated effort retelling the story of Moses by director Ridley Scott, who oversaw movies such as "Gladiator," "Black Hawk Down" and "Alien." The movie, stars Christian Bale of "American Hustle" and "Batman" fame.
Creating Talking Points
"People are hungering for truth, reality and inspiration," said Tom Clarke, a Merritt Island promoter who will be bringing the Christian movie "Beyond Sight" to the 50th Easter Surf Festival in Cocoa Beach on April 18.
"I'll be premiering it here because my No. 1 motive is to inspire. You want people to see something that makes them think, makes them feel better about themselves leaving than when they come in," Clarke said, adding that the motive is more about presenting a clear biblical message than about simply profitting. "Beyond Sight" will be shown at 7 p.m. Good Friday at the Cocoa Beach Pier.
Caddell also points to "The Passion of the Christ" as an example of how Bible-themed movies can actually infuse the often, time-worn accounts from the Bible. "('The Passion,') confronted a lot of people and what they believed because they had a picture that was cleaned up and dignified. But this was a (that) movie showed how Christ suffered and challenged people with its brutality. Sometimes movies can create talking points," Caddell said.
Watch the 'Noah' trailer: