Hollywood missionaries

In a drive to boost revenues, American film bosses are targeting the country's 30 million evangelica

Early next month the Walt Disney Company releases The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the cinema version of the second of C S Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. The 1950 biblical allegory was deemed unfilmable for decades. But times have changed. Advances in computer-generated imagery have allowed directors to recreate elaborate fantasy worlds on screen. Film adaptations of tales such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have been among the biggest-grossing movies of recent years.

But it is not just a desire to replicate these successes that has led to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe being made into a £100m extravaganza, co-produced by Lewis's stepson Douglas Gresham. It is also a result of the resurrection of Christian conservatism in the American mainstream at a time when Hollywood studios are suffering a prolonged slide in admissions. Disney had previously shied away from Narnia, partly because, like other secular studios, it thought Christian symbolism would scare off audiences. However, the unexpected success of Mel Gibson's self-financed Passion of the Christ, which grossed $370m at the US box office, reminded Hollywood of the huge commercial potential of the estimated 30 million evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the United States. Analysts estimate that a film can earn an extra $50m at the box office and sell an additional five million DVDs on the back of church endorsements.

A raft of companies offering specialised media services has sprung up, eager to lend Hollywood a helping hand in producing and marketing films with a Christian-friendly message. Half the budget for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was provided by the "film and education" outfit Walden Media, controlled by Philip F Anschutz, a Presbyterian whose mission is to "clean up" Hollywood. Disney recently retained the services of Motive Entertainment, which aggressively marketed The Passion of the Christ to America's churchgoers. For weeks, dozens of churches have been "sneak peek" sites for presentations about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; affiliated websites have been offering group tickets and "customisable church outreach tools" such as DVDs and posters. This month, the Church Communication Network hosted a Narnia Outreach Training seminar, which was billed as an opportunity for church leaders to learn how to "use this film as an outreach opportunity"; CCN urged them to "invite your community to explore its messages of reconciliation and forgiveness, love and grace".

The congregations targeted in this marketing drive offer a specific merchandising opportunity. Spin-offs from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are to include Narnia activity books for Bible classes and albums of Christian music inspired by the film.

And it is not just Narnia that is providing fertile territory for Disney's missionary marketers. The company also recently screened the heart-warming family golf drama The Greatest Game Ever Played to some of the largest churches in the country. "Its themes are about family, about not giving up on your dreams, courage. They are very secular virtues, but they also could potentially be Christian values," notes Disney's publicity chief Dennis Rice.

Disney is not the only studio changing its attitudes and business practices to appease the Christian right. This year Universal Pictures and 20th Century Fox consulted Grace Hill Media, a company that "helps Hollywood reach people of faith", on the marketing of Cinderella Man and Kingdom of Heaven. Grace Hill Media is advising Sony on The Da Vinci Code - a trickier task, as it is adapted from a novel that challenges the basic tenets of Christian faith. Meanwhile Fox has launched a website to promote Christian and family-based movies, which includes a "church resources" link suggesting Bible verses to discuss in conjunction with scenes from the films.

"Mel Gibson did us a service," says Bob Waliszewski, a media specialist with Focus on the Family, one of 30 evangelical groups invited to see an early trailer of The Lion, the Witch and the Ward-robe. "Hollywood said, 'I thought the church was dead. I didn't think people cared. Is it possible that we don't know what's happening in state after state?' And the answer is a resounding 'yes'."

Although Hollywood could tie itself in knots addressing what exactly a "Christian movie-goer" is - after all, 70 per cent of consumers of mainstream films in America consider themselves quite or very religious - it is clear that simply affirming Christian values in non-religious films can only help commercially. Examples include toning down explicit sexual imagery, and having Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wear "Jesus Rocks" jackets in Fox's summer hit Mr and Mrs Smith.

The studios learned an important lesson from Universal's Walden-financed Oscar-winning biopic, Ray, which was previewed at churches. Congregations loved the film but objected to the word "God" being used as a cuss. Ray's director, Taylor Hackford, who had already cut four-letter profanities to satisfy Anschutz, the Walden boss, insisted he would not edit the film further, but it cost Universal the support of some church advocates. Hackford told the New York Times: "It's impossible for Hollywood not to reflect the nature of the country and Bush has made his religion clear."

The desire to turn films into a vehicle for Christian propaganda has led to some extraordinary claims. In August the editor of the right-wing magazine National Review urged delegates at a Young Republicans conference to watch the documentary March of the Penguins. The conservative critic Michael Medved suggested that the film, which shows the emperor penguins' 70-mile journey over Antarctic ice to breed and raise their young, "passionately affirms monogamy, sacrifice and child-rearing". A Christian magazine even claimed that the birds' journey made "a strong case for intelligent design". The film has taken $76m in the US and is the second-highest grossing documentary ever - after Michael Moore's Bush-baiting Fahrenheit 9/11.

Despite the undoubted commercial rewards, some film-makers are uneasy about the need to play to the Christian market. It has been suggested that Christian marketing groups are now routinely being consulted at script stage for plot or character approval. Peter Sarsgaard, co-star of the Jodie Foster thriller Flightplan, had the exclamation "Jesus" removed from his lines of dialogue. "They said, 'You can't say that. You can't take the Lord's name in vain.' I had to say 'shoot', and that isn't as good." Others in the film business are more resigned, however. As Hackford says: "People in Hollywood aren't stupid. It flies in the face of what I believe, but you're still working in the movie industry, not the movie art form."

The Chronicles of Narnia: the lion, the witch and the wardrobe goes on general release from 8 December