Churches, religious groups embrace ‘Son of God’

Diogo Morgado portrays Jesus in a scene from "Son of God," which opens Friday. (Casey Crafford / 20th Century Fox)

Each week, thousands of Christians gather for prayer and discussion at Liberty University's cavernous Vines Center in Lynchburg, Va.

One Monday morning in January, they listened to husband-and-wife film producing team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey pitch their new movie, "Son of God."

About 10,000 students and faculty members watched as the pair behind the hit History channel miniseries "The Bible" showed clips from the film and discussed its religious significance.

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"Yes, it is a movie, but it is more than a movie," Burnett told The Times. "This is an evangelizing tool."

The Jan. 20 visit was part of a months-long campaign that saw Burnett and Downey visit more than 30 religious organizations to promote their film, which is being distributed by 20th Century Fox and premieres on 3,254 screens nationwide Friday.

"They've been on the road seemingly for months," said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution for 20th Century Fox. "It is really a remarkable achievement, what they've been able to do with their tenacity and dedication to the project."

The effort appears to be paying dividends.

Across the country, churches and other groups have rented out multiplexes where "Son of God" will be shown, free of charge, to their parishioners. Other organizations have bought tickets by the thousands and donated them to churches to disseminate to their flocks.

Locally, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles is giving away 8,000 tickets donated by an anonymous individual. The megachurches of high-profile pastors Rick Warren and Joel Osteen are also distributing free tickets.

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Burnett is the successful producer of the hit television series "Survivor," "The Apprentice" and "The Voice," among others. Downey is best known as the co-star of the long-running faith-based TV program "Touched by an Angel."

Their efforts could lead to a sizable opening weekend for "Son of God," which tells the story of the life of Jesus Christ and is culled from footage shot for last March's "The Bible."

It is also the first film to be released in what Rentrak box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian has termed "the year of the Biblical movie." Paramount Pictures' "Noah" will open March 28, and 20th Century Fox's "Exodus" comes out Dec. 12.

If the films are successful, Dergarabedian believes, "this could be an untapped marketplace that could provide dividends for years to come."

Financed by Burnett and Downey's LightWorkers Media and Hearst Entertainment & Syndication, "Son of God" is expected to gross $15 million to $25 million, according to those who have seen pre-release audience surveys.

An opening in that range would put the film far off the pace of 2004's "The Passion of the Christ," which had a domestic debut of $83.4 million and went on to gross $611.9 million worldwide.

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But executives at Christian organizations said that the outreach done by Burnett and Downey and the ambitious preselling of tickets — hundreds of thousands have been sold — exceed efforts made to promote "The Passion" a decade ago.

Compassion International, a Christian relief group, didn't mount a ticket giveaway for "The Passion" but is doing so for "Son of God" — and in a major way. The group has purchased 225,000 tickets to screenings in 40 cities including Los Angeles. The tickets are being donated to churches, which are distributing them.