Roma Downey and Mark Burnett visit Grand Rapids to promote upcoming film
by David Specht
Having one of the largest Christian populations in the U.S., West Michigan might seem an unlikely choice for the promotion of an upcoming major motion picture – until taking a closer look at the film’s target audience. On Thursday, Dec. 5, producers Mark Burnett and wife Roma Downey visited Celebration Cinema North to promote and host a private screening of their latest work – a full-length film that explores the life of Jesus Christ from birth to resurrection, titled “Son of God.”
Their visit to Grand Rapids was hosted by the Dove Foundation, a non-profit group known for its film reviews, ratings, and endorsements of movies deemed appropriate for family audiences.
The film is not the couple’s first attempt at producing Biblical related media for the masses, as their recent television miniseries “The Bible” aired on The History Channel in March. Based on the success of the miniseries, which has been seen by over 100 million viewers worldwide making it the number one new series on cable television, the couple believes that when it is all said and done, the film will be seen by over 3 billion worldwide.
“You know, Jesus has not been on the big screen for a decade,” said Downey who is not only a producer of the film, but also plays the role of Mother Mary. “And then, the story was just about three days in the life of Jesus. This is the whole story of Jesus’ life from the nativity right through the ascension. And we just think there’s an opportunity here to reach people who maybe have never heard the story of Jesus. You know, the potential for it to go out across America and for it to inspire people, because he was an extraordinary man and it is an extraordinary message.”
The couple’s film, produced by Burnett’s own Lightworkers Media and distributed by 20th Century Fox, is set to release nationwide on Feb. 28, 2014. The film received an MPAA rating of PG-13, and will later be released with Spanish subtitles. With a budget of just $22 million, Downey and Burnett are travelling the U.S., looking to the Christian community to help promote the film.
“It’s okay to be noisy about your faith,” said Burnett. “And we obviously don’t have the marketing budgets compared to The Hobbit, or Thor, or Hercules. The only way this movie survives and thrives, is by the Christian community standing together, and coming to the movie, and being noisy. Also, bring someone with you to the movie that maybe is on the fence about his or her faith. If they see this movie, they’ll absolutely want to be thinking about Jesus – there is no question about that. And if you feel that you’re a leader, and you feel like you want to be a theater captain, you want to motivate a group to go see it, then go to SonOfGodMovie.com and absolutely we’re looking for young leaders to step up and lead the way and motivate groups to go see this movie.”
Though the couple wishes to separate their work from that of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) was the highest grossing R-rated film in U.S. history, grossing an excess of $600 million during its theatrical release, making it difficult for critics to avoid drawing comparisons. Though centered on the same subject, producers Downey and Burnett believe that their film stands apart in more than one way from any previous works based on the life of Jesus Christ.
“I think the way we’ve approached Son of God is with a young cast,” said Burnett. “And the actor playing Jesus, Diogo Morgado, who’s Portuguese, loves Jesus. He said he couldn’t prepare for the way he portrayed Jesus, he had to just let the spirit come through him. It’s the most beautiful portrayal of Jesus I’ve ever seen. And the disciples are a bunch of young guys – it could be you. They didn’t know they were in the Bible. They were just living their lives and following a charismatic leader. Later on it was revealed to them who he was – the Son of God. And then Roma, who plays the mother of Jesus – this incredible portrayal of a woman who’s given a miraculous birth of the son of God, but he’s still human, and loves him as her child, and then has to watch him go through the trial and the crucifixion. But knowing it had to happen for humanity, it didn’t make her pain any less. The movie is real. This is not a donkeys and sandals 1960s version of the Bible. This is real. This is 2014. And young people can really relate to how gritty, and real, and present, and now this story is.”
A key difference between the release of “Son of God” and the release of “The Passion of the Christ” is that, social media networks such as Twitter did not exist and were therefore not utilized during the release of Mel Gibson’s film, both Twitter and Facebook are key marketing tools for the debut of “Son of God.”
“It is our hope that social media is our greatest tool,” said Downey. “My husband is always teasing me that I spend way too much time on Twitter. But clearly it’s a way to reach people, and we have a Twitter handle at Son Of God Movie. And I would just encourage that everyone let people know it’s coming, and that opening weekend is critical for the movie. It sends a message out across the nation, and to Hollywood, that there is an audience here, and that the audience is hungry for this kind of faith material. And is there anymore wonderful a story than the story of Jesus? It is just a great way to reach people. A great way to make awareness.”
While the budget for the film may have been, as Burnett put it, much less than that of “The Hobbit,” one area of filmmaking that the producers aren’t lacking in is experience. With Burnett having produced commercially successful television series such as “Survivor” (2000- present) and “The Apprentice” (2004 – present), along with Downey’s role in the CBS series “Touched by an Angel,” the couple certainly has pull in the industry.
“Together, when we decided to take on “The Bible” series and the movie “Son of God,” we were able to use our Hollywood careers to get it made,” said Burnett. “Not easy to be able to make a movie called “Son of God,” and to the story of Jesus. But we’ve earned that privilege, and we’re out front and center, and we love it. And really, we’re the lucky ones, because we get to spend all day every day around the story of Jesus – like swimming in an ocean of faith, all day every day. It’s all we talk about.”
After the private screening of Son of God, both Downey and Burnett spoke with various moviegoers who had just watched the film, which included prominent figures in the West Michigan community, such as local clergy and other church leaders. One such individual in attendance was Dick Rolfe, CEO of the Dove Foundation, who said that he found the film to be accurate on levels that other similar films had not reached – something that Burnett seemed to agree with. “You see from a Jewish perspective, we were really clear,” said Burnett.
“Jews didn’t kill Jesus. A Jew and a small group of his followers killed Jesus. When Roma was with Jesus at the end in the tomb, how they sang Yiddish, they would’ve done that – he was a Jew. There were no Christians. And that’s why the Jewish community has been supportive. And if anyone comes out and says anything, the answer would be: ‘Are you kidding?’”
Noelle Jacobs, a citizen journalist, was invited to the theater to speak with the producers. Though she was not able to view the film, she was able to meet with both Downey and Burnett before the screening. “Mark Burnett and Roma Downey are among the most devout Christians I have ever met,” said Jacobs. “They are truly inspiring human beings who love the Lord and desire for others to experience the radical love of God that they do. Which is, in part, why they produced “The Bible” series, and now “Son of God,” to create a gateway to Christ for those who do not believe. They will leave viewers with something to think about. Mark and Roma’s marriage is completely rooted in Christ and it is the reason why they have been able to work together so beautifully. They share the same passion and walk the same life path. Together, they make a tenacious team that is capable of impacting the lives of millions of people.”
Although the couple may be, understandably, weary about the success of their upcoming release, it seems that they are less worried about the film’s profit, and more concerned with the film’s message. “It’s the best decision we ever made,” said Burnett. “We love Jesus, we love this film, and we’re so happy to share it. It can be difficult to ask someone to go to church. It’s easier to ask them to go to a movie. We hope that this movie can help find the lost and bring them home.” The movie will be released locally at the end of February. Make sure to go see it!