As 20th Century Fox opens its Moses epic Exodus: Gods And Kings on Friday, it faces a locust storm at the marketplace. Not only does the Ridley Scott film have to part the red sea of the sluggish B.O. frame as well as contend with a heavy-duty holiday shopping weekend, but the question remains whether faith-based audiences — the prime crowd for Exodus — will show up in numbers to spur word-of-mouth given some of the pic’s creative liberties.
The opening weekend for Scott’s $140M production is expected to gross in the mid-$20Ms at No. 1 with an eye toward $30M – a number that would be lower than the $34.8M opening of the director’s Best Picture Oscar winner Gladiator and the $43.7M weekend box of Paramount’s Noah, another controversial big-budget Old Testament adaptation, which was able to buck Christian criticism and rally a $101.2M stateside gross and $362.6M worldwide. UPDATE SATURDAY, AM: Fox reports $8.62M for first day of Exodus, read more here. Should Exodus fall short on domestic, international should save the film from holy damnation ledger-wise. Pic’s second weekend will indicate if it will reap a solid holiday multiple. Already, Exodus counts $32.6M overseas at the B.O. in 13 territories and could see a global haul of $75M by Sunday. Exodus stars Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Ramses along with John Turturro (Seti), Aaron Paul (Joshua), Sigourney Weaver (Tuya) and Ben Kingsley (Nun).
Elsewhere this weekend, Paramount is opening the Chris Rock self-homage comedy Top Five, which it bought out of the Toronto Film Festival for $12.5M, in 975 locations. The studio is eyeing a three day of $6M-$8M in hope of expanding to more venues based on word-of-mouth. Lionsgate’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 should file behind Moses at No. 2 with $11M, while Warner Bros will unspool Paul Thomas Anderson’s private-eye comedy Inherent Vice in New York and Los Angeles in five theaters with an $80K per theater; that’s slightly higher than the cult director’s Adam Sandler absurdist comedy Punch Drunk Love, which made $73K in five venues.
“We’re going after everyone,” Fox’s distribution chief Chris Aronson says about how the studio is making a play for a four-quadrant audience for Exodus in 3,503 theaters. Fox hopes it has the event film that will draw all family members to the cinema this holiday season.
In the same fashion that a studio needs to appease and engage the fanboy audience to turn a big-screen comic-book adaptation into a crossover success, it’s essential for a studio to reach out to the faith-based on a biblical film like Exodus, as they’re the folks who will line up first and fuel repeat business.
Like Noah, Exodus has some deviations from the Old Testament — though arguably fewer, according to Christian and Jewish groups. For example, “I Am” aka God is played by a petulant boy; Moses is a young, virile warrior, not a meek 80-year-old man; and the film doesn’t depict God taking his people out of Israel — rather they revolt against the Egyptians.
But not all Christians will have a problem with this, according to Marshall Mitchell, who co-founded faith-based entertainment marketing firm Different Drummer, which handled the religious outreach for Fox on Exodus. “There’s not one homogeneous evangelical crowd, so people are going to be all over the place (with their opinions). For a lot of Christian audiences, Exodus is another stop along the journey of religious discovery and faith engagement. Exodus isn’t expected to define their (Christian) faith, but it’s a tool that they will agree with strongly or disagree with strongly.”
Mitchell points out that even Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 classic The Ten Commandments took liberties with the Old Testament, filling in narrative gaps, and that film hasn’t suffered over time from the religious establishment.
“I think people are going to approach Exodus individually, taking a piece of Moses that resonates with them.”
Different Drummer implemented numerous forms of outreach to drum up awareness for Exodus, including playing the trailer at several Christian conferences over the past two months, inviting a number of Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders from various sects to a 40-minute sizzle reel of the film in select cities as well as advance screenings. The lobby of the American Bible Society’s HQ in New York is adorned with Exodus ads. TV spots for Exodus were bought specifically during NFL events, given the sports crowd’s Christian sensibility. Rev. Floyd Flake of New York’s Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral, which counts 30,000 members, even publicly extolled Exodus. Faith Driven Consumer, a marketing firm that bridges the gap between 41 million Christians who it says spend $2 trillion annually at the consumer market, says that 78% of all Christians will see a film if their church recommends it.
Mitchell adds, “There wasn’t an effort to get endorsements (from religious leaders or groups), as Moses is a well-known story.” Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s feature production Son Of God — which Fox released to a solid opening of $25.6M for a film of its size ($22M) and final domestic B.O. of $59.7M — garnered a number of endorsements including Cardinal Roger Mahoney, Archbishop Emeritus of Los Angeles; Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu; and Bishop TD Jakes.
But then there are those Christian groups that prophesize complications for Exodus. Faith Driven Consumer responded to the casting of young British actor Issac Andrews — who the NY Times called “Children of the Corn terrifying” — “as a deal breaker, likely to have significant impact on the box office returns of Exodus.” Last spring, the org’s sister stat firm American Insights published a survey stating that 73% of all adults would be likely to see Exodus if it accurately portrays the biblical account of Moses leading the Jewish people out of captivity. However, 67% of all adults would be unlikely to see the pic if it does not accurately portray the Bible.
“We might call that creative license, but to Christian moviegoers, it’s called heresy!” barks another faith-based film marketing consultant about Exodus‘ liberties.
Faith Driven Consumer projected gloom and doom for Noah, however, that film assailed to solid heights. The group’s founder Chris Stone observed that Noah transcended its core crowd because “the public loves apocalyptic stories, whether it’s The Walking Dead on TV or the Mayan calendar disaster film 2012.” And working in Exodus’ favor in terms of wide appeal are the series of diabolic situations that God wages on the Egyptians.
There also was some scuttlebutt on social media about Exodus in recent weeks. News Corp Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch received some heat on Twitter after he defended Scott’s choice to cast white movie stars as Egyptians over those of color. In the wake of Murdoch’s tweets, #boycottexodusmovie became a trending topic. Scott in an AP article told prospective snubbers to “Get a life.” Just like Exodus isn’t racking up a slew of endorsements, it’s not racking up a number of prolific of boycotters in the Last Temptation Of Christ sense. It’s doubtful that these squabblers will impact Exodus’ box office.
Social media tracker RelishMIX sees Exodus as having a modest, but growing, 46.2 SMU (social media universe including YouTube views, Facebook likes and views, and Twitter followers and tags combined), which includes 24.4M YouTube views. Exodus star Bale’s 23 Facebook and Twitter fan pages have been driving the film’s engagement during the past month. By comparison, Noah opened with a SMU of 60.4M and 20.4M YouTube views, heavily driven by Emma Watson. Son Of God found an audience with much softer social strategy with a SMU of 7.1M and only 3.6M views.
But again, a movie about Moses doesn’t just boil down to Christian crowds, but those of the Jewish and Islamic faith as well. Rabbi David Baron, head of the Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts, consulted the Exodus screenwriters, pointing out those discrepancies from the Old Testament that were bound to rub traditionalists the wrong way — in particular, a child portraying the Almighty.
Still, Baron thinks that Exodus won’t alienate Jewish audiences; rather, it will re-engage a younger generation to the faith and the Bible story.
“I think audiences know going into the movie they’re not going to get a clergyman’s account of these events,” he said. “I think what gets lost in the analysis of this discussion is how a Hollywood production such as this will create a new palette on which to paint the portrait of Exodus, one of the greatest stories of freedom, and connect it to a new generation.”