Beyond the Baptist boycott

It was a cheesy ad slogan sure to raise eyebrows during the summer battle for the teen-movie bucks -- "Got Passion? Get Saved!"

An acidic take on a Christian high school, "Saved!" was crafted to make evangelicals punch their boycott buttons. It featured clean queen Mandy Moore as a Bible-throwing harpy from Hades. Macaulay "Home Alone" Culkin played a hip cynic in a wheelchair who shared cigarettes and sex with the school's lone Jewess. Its all-tolerant God offered a flexible moral code.

MGM promoted the film directly to believers who were sure to hate it.

"It seemed like they did everything they could to get a boycott," said Walt Mueller, head of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding in Elizabethtown, Pa. "They wanted a boycott. They needed a boycott. I am sure they were stunned when they didn't get one."

The film cost $5 million to produce and grossed only $8.8 million, after a quiet sojourn in selected theaters. The bottom line: "Saved!" was an intriguing test case for those pondering the impact of media boycotts. Looking ahead, will Southern Baptist executives balk at saying the words "Disney," "boycott" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" in the same sentence?

The crucial word-of-mouth buzz never arrived for "Saved!", perhaps because the conservatives the film set out to bash often turned the other cheek and declined to provide millions of dollars in free publicity.

It helped that the film took so many pot shots that it even offended some secular scribes.

Michael O'Sullivan of the Washington Post said the best adjective for "Saved!" was "condescending" and that it was as "preachy as its finger-wagging victims." Glenn Whipp of the Los Angles Daily News said the movie's creators wanted audiences to "know that it's important to practice tolerance of others -- unless, of course, those others are Christians."

Still, The Los Angeles Times did its part to help the studio by seeking condemnation from the usual snarky suspects -- Catholic League President William Donahue, op-ed columnist Cal Thomas, Christian Film and Television Commission czar Ted Baehr and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Apparently Pat Robertson was busy that day.

But no one uttered the b-word -- boycott. "Saved!" didn't even create a buzz at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"I vaguely remember hearing of that movie, but that's about it," said Dwayne Hastings of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission media office. "I didn't get a single call about it, or a single email. It simply did not make a blip on the Southern Baptist radar."

This is interesting, since Hollywood remains a hot issue for Southern Baptists and other moral conservatives. Years after the national headlines, the 1997 Southern Baptist vote to boycott the Walt Disney Co. remains in effect. The convention cited a wave of "anti-Christian" media products, Disney policies granting benefits to partners of gay employees and "Gay Day" events at theme parks that angered many families and church groups.

There is no sign that the Southern Baptist leadership is re-thinking this stance. This summer, the Rev. Wiley Drake of First Baptist in Buena Vista, Calif., a strong Disney critic, floated a convention resolution commending the studio for producing the patriotic movie "America's Heart and Soul." His motion was ruled out of order.

"I want a specific action commending them for what they are doing," said Drake.

Hastings said it's hard to image the convention retreating and ending the boycott. It's just as hard to imagine Disney apologizing to Southern Baptists. Nevertheless, an upcoming series of films based on the fantasy fiction of the best known Christian writer of the 20th Century would certainly raise questions. What if Mel Gibson provided the voice of Aslan, the Christ-figure lion?

"It's possible that there could be a resolution praising Disney for doing Narnia. Of course, this assumes that they offer some kind of accurate rendering of the Christian vision and beliefs of C.S. Lewis," said Hastings.

"But the whole point of the boycott is for people to stop and think about their choices. I'm sure that millions of Baptists went to see 'Finding Nemo' and they watch ESPN like everybody else. But they are thinking twice about giving Disney their money and support. People are learning to be more selective."