TAMPA — Tonight, Chris Rinklin will take his bride of 20 years and the mother of their two children out for a date night.
It won't be intimate — they'll be joined by dozens of other couples and their guests — but it will be spiritual.
They're going to an advance showing of “Son of God” at the AMC Veterans 24 in Tampa.
“Can't wait to see it,” says Rinklin, the Married Life pastor at Grace Family Church in Lutz. “It opens for the rest of the country on Friday, but we'll get the first look at it.”
And that's exactly the plan for this epic produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, which features a mix of old and new footage from their hit History Channel miniseries, “The Bible.” More than 500,000 tickets have been purchased in advance by churches and religious groups, which are renting out theaters and multiplexes this week for private screenings.
Tens of thousands of tickets also are being given out for free by the film's exclusive charity, relief group Compassion International.
The mission behind this pre-opening push: Create a buzz and generate a healthy box-office showing this weekend for an ambitious movie that needs to make a splash with mainstream audiences, not just Christians.
An official from Liberty University, a Christian college founded by the late Jerry Falwell, told The Hollywood Reporter last week why this faith-based film carries such weight.
“We think it's an extraordinary product, and for Christianity we think it's a historic moment,” spokesman Johnnie Moore said. “This is the first movie about the life of Jesus in 50 years. It would be beneficial to people all across the country to see this on the big screen.”
Tinseltown appears to be gambling on God in 2014.
This film is just the first of three with biblically based themes coming in the next two months. Darren Aronofsky's “Noah,” starring Russell Crowe, hits theaters in late March, followed by Randall Wallace's “Heaven is for Real,” starring Greg Kinnear, timed to come out just before Easter. Based on a book that's been on The New York Times Best Seller list for more than three years, it's the story of a boy's extraordinary near-death experience and his father finding the courage and conviction to share it with the world.
Coming up in December: Ridley Scott's “Exodus” with Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver, and Alister Grierson's “Mother, Mary of Christ,” featuring big-name stars such as the late Peter O'Toole, Sir Ben Kingsley and Julia Ormond.
Industry watchers will be paying attention to how these faith-based movies fare when it comes to ticket sales.
Mark Pinsky, a former national religion reporter and author of “The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, And Pixie Dust,” says there's “definitely something in the air” right now regarding this spate of spiritual films.
“It's not a new trend. Religious movies aimed at general audiences seem to come out in cycles,” he says. “But when a couple of them fail in a row, they go away for a few years. It just costs too much money on the front end to keep taking chances.”
There are obvious risks in taking on the genre, Pinsky says.
“You run the risk of watering down the religious part to appeal to broader audiences. And when you do that, you run the risk of offending the religious ones,” he says.
One smart move already demonstrated by filmmakers is signing actors with box-office clout.
“You have a Russell Crowe or a Greg Kinnear, and it gives the gloss that this is not an old Billy Graham movie,” Pinsky says. “You're already sparking some interest.”
No matter what happens on the financial end, this is a “welcome opportunity to get the faith conversation going,” says Elijah Davidson, co-director of Reel Spirituality for the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
“We're hoping people will go to these movies and ask questions about the world, about God,” he says. “If it starts a dialogue outside of the theater, then it's accomplished something worthwhile. We want audiences to approach these films beyond the entertainment side of it.”
Davidson is not surprised by Hollywood's interest in spirituality.
“Bible stories are captivating and powerful, but that's just part of it,” he says. “There are themes that relate to God and faith in so many movies, without being in your face.”
Rinklin, whose church bought 270 seats for tonight's showing and sold them at a discounted price, sees a higher purpose for movies such as “Son of God.” He knows several members will invite neighbors and friends to join them.
“It's a nonthreatening way to introduce our faith to others,” he says. “One of the major streams of influence in our country is entertainment, so why not use it for Christianity?”