MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
And I'm Alex Chadwick.
(Soundbite of song, “Gonna Fly Now”)
CHADWICK: Ah, “Rocky.” Just the theme makes you want to slurp raw eggs and race up the steps of the Philadelphia museum. The sixth movie in the series, titled “Rocky Balboa,” opens today.
BRAND: Hey Alex, it's actually getting some pretty decent reviews from the critics and from an unexpected place: the pulpit. NPR's Luke Burbank explains.
LUKE BURBANK: If you happened to be watching the Christian Broadcasting Network, TBN, last Wednesday afternoon…
Unidentified Man #1: And now “Behind the Scenes” international report with TBN founder and president, Paul Crouch…
BURBANK: …you saw something kind of unique.
Mr. PAUL CROUCH (Founder and President, TBN): I will bless the Lord at all times, and his praise shall continuously be in my mouth.
BURBANK: Nope, not that part. That's actually how every show starts. What was different about last Wednesday's program was the way host Paul Crouch, Jr. was effusing about a movie that on the surface doesn't seem all that, well, religious.
Mr. CROUCH: Sylvester Stallone has a new movie coming out called “Rocky Balboa.” And there's some very strong faith elements in this film. I really, truly believe that Sylvester has really rededicated his life to the Lord and really found - or refound his faith.
BURBANK: Talk about the good news - if you're the film's distributor, anyway. Those comments on TBN reached roughly half a million potential moviegoers. And it didn't happen by accident.
Mr. SYLVESTER STALLONE (Actor, Writer, Director): I know you all stand for strong values, and I respect that.
BURBANK: This is Sylvester Stallone himself, on a Web site specifically created to pitch the movie to pastors.
Mr. STALLONE: As a husband and dad, I struggle everyday to live a life of faith and values. I hope you enjoyed watching Rocky as much as I enjoyed playing him. This film has a powerful message that will inspire a lot of people. I hope it inspires you.
BURBANK: The site, Rockyresources.com, also features clips of Christian leaders themselves testifying as to the film's biblical bona fides.
Unidentified Man #2: Rocky, I think, embodies what Jesus was - full of humility.
BURBANK: Plus, visitors can pick up a Rocky Balboa outreach box, which includes a promotional DVD and sermon ideas for pastors. For instance, spice up your Sundays with a three-part series on the heart of a champion. Make sure to play clips from “Rocky Balboa” to illustrate your point.
Mr. PAUL LAUER (Motive Media): When I first got involved in “Rocky Balboa,” I think I was skeptical just like everybody else. And then I sat down and I saw the film with my 13-year-old son.
BURBANK: Paul Lauer runs Motive Media, the company hired to market the movie to Christians. He's pretty much the guy for this kind of thing, having marketed a small Mel Gibson film you may have heard of called “The Passion of the Christ.” Lauer, a devout Catholic and father of five himself, says there are only two kinds of movies he will market.
Mr. LAUER: One's a passion film and one's a parable film. A passion film literally is a film with explicit Christian imagery. A parable film, it's not a religious film. It is a film that tells a story that has a message in it.
BURBANK: Lauer says that's why “Rocky Balboa” is, in essence, a Christian film. Not because Rocky talks about Jesus in the movie - because he doesn't - but because never giving up is a useful life lesson. And if pastors are going to give useful life lessons, they might as well use clips from his movie.
Pastor DREW GOODMANSON (Kaleo Church, San Diego): That, for me, was really where they crossed the line.
BURBANK: Drew Goodmanson is a pastor at Kaleo Church in San Diego. He was one of the many Christian leaders contacted by Motive Media about using the movie in his sermons.
Pastor GOODMANSON: I don't have a problem with them connecting issues of faith so that, you know, we can be aware of those. But when they started providing, you know, sermon series ideas with using clips of their film…
BURBANK: That was when Goodmanson got mad - or at least annoyed enough to write about it on his Christian blog.
Pastor GOODMANSON: What really was their agenda? You know, was it to benefit the church, or was it really because they've seen the success of other films like “The Passion” or even “Narnia” or other faith-based films and they wanted to tap into that?
BURBANK: It's hard to know, exactly. One curious note: while Sylvester Stallone has spent a lot of time recently telling Christian leaders about how spiritual he's become, the subject never seems to come up when he's talking to other outlets.
Here's ESPN's Sal Paolantonio asking him a question during a broadcast of Monday Night Football.
Mr. SAL PAOLANTONIO (ESPN announcer): The new movie coming out for Christmas, “Rocky Balboa,” what is different about this particular film?
BURBANK: Hold that. You'd think this would be a pretty natural place to talk about Rocky's newfound spirituality, right? Not exactly.
Mr. STALLONE: Well, of course, you know, my age plays an important part of it, like how do you manage the last part of your life? How do you…
BURBANK: I wondered if any of those Christian leaders Stallone had talked to when he was promoting the film felt burned. So I called Paul Crouch, Jr., the TV host we started this story with.
Do you think there's anything disingenuous about trying to use pastors to market a film that's about boxing?
Mr. CROUCH: You could say, you know, by marketing it to Christians that it's, you know, crossing the line or it's gratuitous - but I still don't see what's wrong in using some of the strong, biblical principles. I mean, for goodness sakes, even the “The Matrix” had Christian allegory all through it.
BURBANK: All indications are that “Rocky Balboa” is going to make Stallone and the studio lots of money, which should help with his next big project, “Rambo IV: Pearl of the Cobra.” Stallone has begun pre-production on the film, in which John Rambo frees a group of Christian missionaries in Burma.
Luke Burbank, NPR News.