This opinion piece is by Tyler Huckabee, a writer living in Nashville.
On paper, “Silence” had all the makings of a success. A Martin Scorsese-helmed adaptation of well-regarded, Shusaku Endo-penned literary masterwork starring Adam Driver, Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson is prestige candy, and expectations were only bolstered as the long gestating film’s myth spread. Scorsese had wanted to make the film for 25 years, ever since reading the book during the religious fallout from his legendarily controversial “Last Temptation of Christ.” He’d recruited Endo’s own translator Van C. Gessel to serve as a consultant on the project.
And when the movie finally opened to limited release in December, it received rave reviews. But the bank doesn’t accept a certified fresh rating, and “Silence” is a flop. Its limited release was expanded to just under 750 theaters over the MLK weekend, during which it brought it a ghastly $2.3 million. That’s pennies next to its $50 million price tag, and one of the biggest bombs of Scorsese’s career.
None of this is terribly interesting outside the purview of cinephiles and film execs, but it’s noteworthiness right now stems from the unique moment in which America finds itself. Following last month’s Golden Globe kerfuffle in which Meryl Streep gave a lengthy, scathing indictment of President-elect Donald Trump, she was roundly criticized from all corners of conservatism for being indicative of “the reason Trump won.”
There are more theories as to why Trump won than there were Republican primary challengers, but the anti-Streep theory picked up some real steam. The line of thinking goes that Hollywood’s elitist left-wing bubble had grown so insular that it spurred a red-state backlash in the form of Trump votes.
Regardless of how much stock you put in that theory, it’s true that conservatives have often felt as if their ideas were at odds with Hollywood. There is some truth to this, owing to a long, ugly history that dates back to the 1950s. The early years of Hollywood found a good deal of cooperation between conservative Christians and Hollywood film execs. Christians enjoyed seeing Bible stories like Moses and King David brought to the big screen, and studios liked that they sold well. This partnership was short-lived, however, as the infamous conservative-driven witch hunt for communists set Hollywood on the defensive against conservatism. Those wounds never healed, and Hollywood’s influence has grown as religion’s has waned, usurping the role of cultural gatekeeper.
All of this has led to last month’s dust-up between one of Hollywood’s most untouchable stars and those who felt demeaned by her language. “I guess the notion of giving a new president a chance, whether you voted for him or not, is hopelessly quaint,” tut-tutted Fox News analyst Howard Kurtz. Republican firebrand Tomi Lahren figured that these “Hollywood elites wouldn’t know average, everyday, hard-working Americans if we bit them in the ass.” Conservative commentator Meghan McCain was most direct: “This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won.”
According to commentators like these, it’s long past time for Hollywood to crack the gates open for some more conservative themes to cut through its films. There’s an audience there, they argue, not unreasonably. Why not make movies for them?
It’s a fair question, and worth answering with another: Why isn’t anyone watching “Silence”?
The film’s themes aren’t just religious — they’re Christian, dealing with Catholic doctrine, missionary work and martyrdom. Endo himself, who died in 1996, was a devout Roman Catholic, and Scorsese is unwaveringly faithful to his source material, his obvious admiration of the source material inspiring an unusual level of textual fidelity.
In the same way that there is no one reason Trump won, there is no one reason “Silence” is underperforming. There’s no doubt that the film is a hefty commitment, clocking in at two hours and 40 minutes. And there was an unusual lack of advertising surrounding the release, with its first trailer dropping just one month before the film’s actual premiere.
And then there’s the limited release itself. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Silence” did good business in New York and Los Angeles, where it first opened. But a wider release to slightly smaller markets has found disastrously little traction so far. The question of whether the film would have done better numbers if it’d expanded into more rural communities where faith audiences are more centralized is one that will keep Paramount execs up. “Silence” had none of the heavy church marketing that accompanied films like “God’s Not Dead” or Mark Burnett’s “Son of God” (both 2014), but “Silence” is a wilder, woolier film than either of those. It is, frankly, a tough sell.
This leads us to the subject matter, which lacks any of the pat answers and choir preaching that have made Hollywood’s outsider faith fare like “God’s Not Dead” surprise moneymakers. “God’s Not Dead” ends with an encouragement for audiences to text the film’s title to all their contacts. “Son of God” was, well, religiously faithful to its source material. “Silence” wrestles with questions of apostasy and martyrdom of both the body and the soul, going great lengths to defy any easy reading. That makes for a compelling movie, but not necessarily a lucrative one.
And Hollywood — ever mindful of the dollar — will take note. While Scorsese’s movie was clearly made more with awards voters in mind than the popcorn crowd, it’s attracted the attention of neither thus far. Whatever other lesson might be learned, one will certainly sink in: there is no market for thoughtful, creative religious filmmaking, whatever those who rail against Meryl Streep might say. Conservative viewers of the Golden Globes might say they want Hollywood to reflect their values, but until they start buying tickets, it will be hard to take such language seriously. After all, if Martin Scorsese, Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver can’t make a profitable faith movie, who can?
So “Silence” will fade and Hollywood will return to business as usual. Cape flicks and a Pixar tentpole in the summer; quieter prestige bait in the winter. Scorsese supposedly has a Frank Sinatra biopic in the works. Garfield is set to star in the upcoming “Under the Silver Lake,” director David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to his glowingly received horror flick “It Follows.” Driver, well, have you guys heard of “Star Wars”? Movies will chase trends and respond to what clicks.
And if there are no more sophisticated, nuanced engagements with faith in the cineplex anytime soon, Christians should think twice before accusing Hollywood of ignoring them. It’s just the free market at work.
Follow Tyler Huckabee on Twitter @tylerhuckabee.