On Thursday night, all 10 screens at Charlotte’s Phillips Place theater will be showing the same movie. And filling all the seats will be evangelical Christians eager to finally see what they’ve been awaiting for 10 years.
The return of Jesus to the big screen.
“Son of God,” a by-the-Book blockbuster from reality TV producer Mark Burnett (“Survivor”) and his wife, actress Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”), begins its regular run in theaters Friday.
But thousands of Charlotte-area Christians will get a sneak preview Thursday as part of a push in several cities to boost the movie’s early box office receipts and, they hope, send a reminder to Hollywood that there’s a big market for Bible-based films.
The two-hour-plus “Son of God,” which tells the life story of Jesus, takes much of its dialogue, and virtually all of Jesus’ words, from the Gospels in the New Testament. Filmed in Morocco and narrated by the character of John, one of the 12 apostles, it’s the first major movie about Jesus since Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.
That movie grossed more than $370 million, but sparked controversy for what some considered its anti-Semitic portrayal of Jewish leaders in first century Jerusalem.
For “Son of God,” five local churches and a few Christian groups and businesses have “purchased” a total of 27 movie screens for Thursday night’s private sold-out showings.
Phillips Place and seven other theaters will turn over screens to, among others, Forest Hill and Elevation – two evangelical megachurches.
Besides building support for the film, rated PG-13 for the brutal Passion scenes, churches in Charlotte and elsewhere also hope to use the film – with its impressive visuals and orthodox Christian message – to evangelize young people and spiritual seekers.
In announcing the screenings, nondenominational Forest Hill Church urged members to “please consider bringing a friend to hear this incredible Gospel message in a relaxed environment – possibly for the first time.”
Donna Elyea, a Charlotte Realtor and longtime member at Forest Hill, plans to be in the audience at Phillips Place, along with her husband, their two teenagers, and Elyea’s mother.
And if the movie passes Scriptural muster, she’s hoping to go back to see it again – this time with unchurched friends who will be able to see, not just read, this story of an itinerant Jewish preacher and healer whose followers came to believe he was the long-promised Messiah.
Elyea, 50, remembers how riveted she was as she watched “The Passion of the Christ,” with its unflinching re-enactment of the torture and execution of Jesus. “As a Christian, I knew how Christ had suffered for me,” she said. “But seeing it causes you to really feel it inside in a way that reading it will not always do.”
Burnett and Downey, the film’s producers and evangelical Christians themselves, mentioned the Charlotte screenings last week on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“Several pastors announced they were taking over every screen in a megaplex,” Burnett said. “That’s happening in Miami, that’s happening in Oklahoma City. In Charlotte, North Carolina. New York City. God is moving. Things are happening that we never imagined.”
“Son of God” is essentially a big-screen sequel to “The Bible,” their 2013 TV miniseries on The History Channel that scored big ratings.
The screenings are being spearheaded by Rob Rogers, 51, owner of a Chick-fil-A at University Place. He met Burnett and Downey about a month ago at Ballantyne Country Club, where they’d come to promote their film to churches and the Charlotte Christian Chamber of Commerce.
Later that day, after attending a screening of “Son of God,” Rogers decided he wanted to do more to spread the word on the movie, especially during opening weekend, when movie studios pore over box office receipts. “We really want to get waves of people in the Charlotte community going to see this,” Rogers said.
“Son of God” is the first of several high-profile 2014 movies based on Bible stories and religious best-sellers.
Now on their way to theaters: “Noah,” starring Russell Crowe (March 28); “Heaven is for Real,” with Greg Kinnear as the father of a boy who experiences heaven during emergency surgery (April 16); and “Exodus,” with Christian Bale as Moses (Dec. 12).
There’s no guarantee all these films will be embraced by evangelical Christians, who, after all, led protests in 1988 when Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” was released.
Forest Hill Pastor David Chadwick said Hollywood may finally be waking up.
“There are a lot of people out there who want these (faith-based) movies,” he said, “and they’re willing to spend their hard-earned money on them.”