Is the Biblical Epic Dead?

By  · Published on December 15th, 2014

20th Century Fox

Back in November of last year, our own Samantha Wilson dove deep on Hollywood’s newly revitalized and ritualized love for the big screen Biblical epic, as inspired by a fresh trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Sam pointed out a hefty number of new Biblical epics bound for the big screen, from Exodus and Gods and Kings (which, what, became the same film?) to Redemption of Cain and a new Pontius Pilate feature. By all means, it looked like the Biblical epic was back!

It’s not.

This weekend saw the release of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, which earned a relatively paltry $24.5M on an estimated $140M budget. But it wasn’t just that the audience didn’t turn out for the film – the critics didn’t like it either, giving it a dismal 28% Rotten rating on the Tomatometer. The film certainly didn’t inspire much goodwill amongst most people – audiences or critics alike – thanks to continued commentary about its white-washed casting, which both director Scott and stars like Christian Bale failed to ever address in a respectful manner. Exodus is a big, glitzy Biblical epic that never seemed like must-see, blockbuster material. It’s a far cry from what the genre used to be, even as it desperately tries to fit that old mold.

Hollywood has long churned out major Biblical outings – one of the reasons why it’s not so surprising that there appears to be a current uptick in the genre – but before such disappointments as Exodus and Aronofsky’s long-delayed Noah (that film ultimately made over $360M at the box office, but its domestic take barely cracked the $100M mark), movies like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur (which, of course, is due for its own update soon) earned accolades, respect and box office dollars. These films are classics, some of the most recognizable films ever made, and offerings like Noah and Exodus can scarcely hope to match them.

The spectacle of the Biblical epic cannot be overstated. Even during the early years of Hollywood, such films were some of the most expensive and expansive of their day – The Ten Commandments was made in 1923 for nearly $1.5M – and that level of quality has diminished consistently over time. Instead, films like Exodus and Noah feel like any other blockbuster, any other major Hollywood outing. The Biblical epic as we once knew it is dead.

Financially, they just don’t make sense anymore. Exodus, which boasts a popular Biblical tale, a star-studded cast and a well-known director will likely not make back its budget in domestic release. Left Behind made just $14M at the box office, and that movie included Nicolas Cage, for chrissakes. The Nativity Story made $46M in 2006. Instead of turning out to see traditional takes on the material (and, yes, whatever was going on in Left Behind), audiences need something with a bit more spice. That’s what they want to see.

Over at BoxOfficeMojo, the highest-earning film of the “Christian” genre is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ. Interestingly, the controversial film is also the highest-earning in the “controversial” category. Christians rallied around the film, which was viewed as being something how both totally over the top and disarmingly true-to-the-book, and the film made millions in the process. The story may be a classic one – the most classic one — but its marketing was modern. It made money.

Other Christian-tinged features have done similarly good work at the box office, including outliers like Fireproof, Heaven Is For Real, God’s Not Dead and When the Game Stands Tall. More modern films, such new offerings seem to appeal to audiences looking for material that applies to their current lives, not to stories that they know and that have previously been told (often, over and over). Of course, there have been plenty of modern misfires – including Kirk Cameron’s recent Saving Christmas – but the trend is now swinging towards contemporary tellings of old lessons, not another swords-and-sandals epic that does little to make its material come alive. If the genre wants to rise back up, going forward is the only answer.