Filmmaker Hopes Passion for Esther Puts Jews and Christians in the Seats

By Rebecca Spence

Published September 15, 2006, issue of September 15, 2006.
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“Touch your neighbor’s hand and say ‘destiny,’” Matthew Crouch implored the crowd, a microphone pressed to his lips. “We’re all Christians here,” he proclaimed, with the rousing cadence of a megachurch preacher.

On a recent Friday afternoon some 200 churchgoers, seated in a movie theatre at the AMC Empire 25 multiplex in Times Square, did as they were told and reached across to the person next to them. “Destiny is locked up inside one another,” Crouch continued, before taking a beat. A gripped audience, largely made up of African-Americans, held hands and uttered the word in a unified voice.

Destiny. It’s a common theme in Christian dogma, and one that’s often invoked by end-time theologians. Only Crouch’s ersatz sermon was no riff on religious doctrine. It was, rather, a nod to the financial fate of his soon-to-be-released $18 million film epic, based on a novel by a best-selling Christian author that retells the Purim story from the biblical Book of Esther. The event was one of some 20 nationwide pre-release marketing screenings for pastors in 16 cities, this one held in midtown Manhattan.

Crouch concluded his talk by plugging his audience’s power to shape the destiny of his newest movie. “I can’t get New Yorkers to see this film,” he said, “but you can.”

Crouch, 44, is the CEO of Gener8Xion Entertainment Inc., a Los Angeles-based production company that creates what he calls “value-based” — code for Christian content — films. His latest project, “One Night With The King,” features Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia who saved her people from annihilation, as its heroine and is set for nationwide release October 13.

The same religious groups that threw their weight behind “The Passion of the Christ” are now cheering for Crouch’s Old Testament epic. “One Night With the King” is only the second Hollywood movie that the American Bible Society, a Christian organization that promotes biblical literacy, has endorsed, after Mel Gibson’s controversial blockbuster. And Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a close ally of Christian conservative leaders and one of the most vocal Jewish defenders of “The Passion of the Christ,” has also lent his support. The debate surrounding Gibson’s movie, which drew fierce criticism from some Jewish communal leaders and commentators, is not something Crouch or his film’s advocates would like to repeat, they said.

“My prayer is that our film, without sounding like a pariah, would be a bridge of unity between Christians and Jews,” Crouch said in an interview with the Forward, as he stood outside the multiplex where he was conducting on-camera exit interviews. “It’s Christian money paying for a Jewish film,” he added.

Taking the opposite tack as Gibson, Crouch — who may have learned a lesson or two from the icy reception in Jewish circles to “The Passion of the Christ” — is going out of his way to court Jewish support for his film in advance of its release. Screenings for rabbis and leaders of Jewish organizations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are in the planning stages, according to Juda Engelmayer, a public relations executive with strong ties to the Jewish community who is in charge of organizing the previews. A screening before the Knesset, which Lapin facilitated, had to be canceled following the outbreak of the war with Hezbollah, Crouch said.

Looking every bit the Hollywood producer with spiky gray hair and a funky floral-printed button-down worn over a fitted black t-shirt and black pants, Crouch is a darling of the Christian media. His parents, Paul and Jan Crouch, are the founders of the world’s largest Christian television company, the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Three of Crouch’s preceding films have been produced in association with TBN.

Crouch, to some extent, created the phenomenon of do-it-yourself marketing to the churchgoing crowd. His self-distributed first film, “The Omega Code,” was named the highest grossing independent film of 1999, taking in $14 million at the box office. Crouch’s grassroots campaign for the low-budget thriller, which centers on a quest to unearth historical prophecies encoded in the Torah, served as a kind of model for Gibson’s efforts to sell “The Passion of the Christ” to evangelicals. Gibson even turned to Crouch for advice, resulting in three informal meetings, Crouch said.

Fox Faith, a recently established division of Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox aimed at penetrating the growing market for Christian films, has also attached its name to “One Night With the King.” The new venture will be responsible for the marketing and advertising for 30 out of 1,000 theaters where the film is expected to show.

Crouch buttressed the slim credentials of his unknown lead actress, Tiffany Dupont, and the actor playing Haman, James Callis, by hiring a wider cast of biblical-film star power. He tapped Omar Sharif to play Prince Memucan, the advisor who tells King Ahasuerus to exile Vashti, and John Rhys-Davies of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy to play Mordechai. Peter O’Toole makes a cameo appearance in the opening scenes, set before the traditional Purim story, as Samuel the prophet.

During the editing process, Crouch turned to Lapin — whose defense of Gibson and attacks on Jewish communal leaders have made him a controversial figure in the broader Jewish community — for guidance on biblical accuracy. Lapin, who in recent years was the host of a television program for TBN, said that while fictional elements that don’t appear in the Book of Esther are woven throughout the film, as they are in “Haddassah: One Night With the King,” the novel by Tommy Tenney on which the script is based, it is done “sensitively in a way that no Jew can take offense.”

“This is the only blip on the radar screen of history where Christians are making a dramatization of a book of the Bible that is totally respectful,” said Lapin, calling the film “historical.”

Still, Lapin acknowledged that some would undoubtedly use the film as a tool for proselytizing Jews. But on the whole, he praised the movie’s producers and the evangelical population in the United States for their friendship with the Jewish people. “Exactly the same people who made and support this movie are the same people keeping Bush’s toes to the fire on his support of Israel.”

Eric Greenberg, associate director for interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, said he had not seen the film, but expressed skepticism that a movie based on a novel by a Christian pastor could accurately portray the story from a traditional Jewish perspective. Greenberg said that the film should not be presented as “either historical or biblical.”

“If you say it’s biblical, whose interpretation of the Bible are we talking about?”, said Greenberg, adding that even Jewish scholars differ on the origins of the Esther scroll. “It’s the same problem we ran up against in ‘The Passion,’” with Gibson saying he was presenting an exact depiction of the Gospels but relying on later interpretations, Greenberg said. “It sounds like we might be going down that same murky road.”

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