Can Paramount’s ‘Noah’ Weather a Box Office Storm of Controversy?

People take their religious beliefs very seriously, so when movies are made based on stories from their sacred texts, controversy is to be expected. That's the scenario Paramount (a subsidiary of Viacom (NASDAQ: VIA  ) ) is finding itself in right now with this weekend's Noah ... and it's quickly turning into one of biblical proportions.

Know your audience

(Credit: Paramount)

Religious movies work only under certain circumstances. Uber producer Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey proved that when their Son of God almost upset actioner Non-Stop last month. The pair culled together footage from their History Channel mini-series, The Bible, and added new scenes to craft the final version, which turned a nice profit. Leading up to the movie's release and throughout its run, Burnett and Downey were extremely careful to promote the film in a way that spoke to its adherence to the text.

Noah is not designed to tell the by-the-book story of Noah and the great flood; it's designed as a film inspired by the story. Translation: creative license was taken. After all this is a Darren Aronofsky-directed movie and you'd expect no less from the man behind Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream. The Oscar nominee has a unique style and it plays well to a certain crowd, but the ultra-religious isn't usually one of them.

Two-front battle

(Credit: Paramount)

It's more than the religious aspect that's causing controversy. Paramount was prepared for the backlash, but its solution also made waves. Executives reportedly created additional cuts of the movie to show to test audiences with the hope it could temper any ill feelings. They even told the head of the National Religious Broadcasters they'd issue this disclaimer with the film.

The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.

The problem is they didn't tell Aronofsky about their plans.

Now aside from worrying about offending religious groups, the studio also ran the risk of offending its director, who has never been shy about expressing his views. Understandably he was hurt by the studio's behind-the-scenes adjustments, but ultimately Aronofsky's cut won out and that's the one hitting theaters.

Business impact

Despite the religious complaints and the studio mishandling a few aspects, there is a rainbow of sorts in the mix. So far film review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes has the film at a 78% positive rating. While that could fall, it won't sink to the 22% Son of God registered. Noah's also gotten praise from top critics at outlets like The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, and the New York Post. Time's Richard Corliss even opened his review by saying, "movies aren't supposed to be this good this early in the year."

So what does this mean financially for the studio and Hollywood in general? Well like Son of God, the film will have a sizable opening, but Noah was made for about $100 million more. Projections have the film toppling Divergent to become the weekend's top earner with around $35 million. That's still $90 million more it needs to recoup, but international audiences will likely help offset that cost, as will 3D upcharges.

And as USA Today pointed out, some religious leaders are even coming to the movie's aid. While they aren't defending all of it, some like Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has said he would recommend it to his congregations saying, "This is not Noah 101 from the book of Genesis. But it's a pro-faith movie, a pro-God movie, a pro-family movie. Without a doubt."

That's welcome news to Paramount, which needs any help it can get as its first three films of the year (Paranormal Activity: The Marked OnesJack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Labor Day) have all under-performed. The studio has two big tentpoles this summer (Transformers 4 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) that have mostly positive buzz, so if it can turn the corner here it should be a smoother 2014.

As for the industry, at least three more religious films are slated for 2014 and they run the gamut in terms of style and structure. By December, studios will have a much better idea of what works and what doesn't when making movies in this genre. One thing is for sure -- this is one topic that can quickly make waves.

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