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'The Bible' producer Burnett follows TV miniseries with big-screen 'Son of God'

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TORONTO - The ratings success of the 10-hour miniseries "The Bible" has made a convert out of Hollywood, which seems much more inclined to pursue faith-based film and TV projects these days, say husband-and-wife producing team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

The duo are following up their run on History with a big screen feature film about Jesus Christ's life, "Son of God," set to open this weekend. They also have more TV plans including a four-hour miniseries for CBS based on the bestselling novel "The Dovekeepers," and a 12-hour series for NBC called "A.D.," which begins in the days after Jesus' death.

"I think certainly the success of 'The Bible' series got the attention of Hollywood," Downey said, sitting alongside Burnett during a recent stop in Toronto.

"We're very encouraged (by) that, there's obviously an audience for faith material and I think that audience has been underserved."

Their five-part series "The Bible" was an unexpected hit last year, garnering 13.1 million viewers when it premiered in March.

Burnett says the sprawling production held broad appeal, disproving the notion that religious fare is niche programming.

"'The Bible,' however you look at it, had 100 million viewers just in America," says the TV veteran, best known as the reality show guru behind "Survivor," "The Apprentice" and "The Voice."

"In Canada, it beat hockey. It's number one in Hong Kong and that has given a lot of people confidence to approach the Biblical subject matter and certainly with us, with our movie 'Son of God.'"

Other religious-inspired titles headed to the multiplex include the big-budget Russell Crowe vehicle "Noah," with Darren Aronofsky helming the First Testament tale about Noah and his ark, and Ridley Scott's "Exodus," with Christian Bale as Moses.

"Son of God" takes a PG-13 look at the life of Jesus, beginning with his birth and early teachings and following him through the Crucifixion and resurrection. Diogo Morgado portrays Jesus, while Downey — best known for starring in "Touched By An Angel" — appears as Mary, mother to the adult Jesus.

Burnett says faith-based material has always been a winner with audiences.

"If you think of 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' or 'The Ten Commandments,' whenever they're placed on prime-time TV they beat current programming," he says.

"Every generation or decade, someone needs to step up and say: 'I'm going to do this' and that's what we did."

"Son of God" is made up of previously aired footage from "The Bible" along with new scenes that were shot when the miniseries was filmed in Morocco in 2012.

Burnett says the duo decided to make a film as they became increasingly aware they had more than enough material.

Going bigger meant an opportunity to offer more visual effects, Downey adds, noting that miracles — including a scene in which Jesus walks on water — were tweaked for maximum theatrical impact.

But Burnett says the biggest advantage of releasing "Son of God" on the big screen has been the effect it has had on some audiences.

At some screenings, pastors have stood up at the end of the film to lead everyone in prayer, he says.

"It took 12 months for the edit team to revisit this and to re-do the music and 5.1 surround sound but it was so worth it because what we're feeling and hearing across the nation, across Canada and across America, is the experience people are having watching this on a big screen in community," says Burnett, adding that the movie is also being released with Korean subtitles and dubbed into Spanish.

"In a screening in Los Angeles, 40 people came to Christ as a result of watching the movie. You just don't hear that kind of stuff happening."

None of this is to say that Burnett is backing away from reality fare.

The TV heavyweight just as readily touts his "Dragons' Den" adaptation "Shark Tank" and the return of the singing competition "The Voice." His new projects include a weekly series featuring Mexican wrestling on Robert Rodriguez's El Rey Network.

If there's one thing uniting it all, it's a focus on "family friendly fare," he says. Even the cut-throat "Survivor" offers a moral lesson.

"The core value of 'Survivor' is always one simple thing, which is: In the end, the very people you got rid of are the ones granting you the gift of a million dollars. So therefore, the people that lie and cheat other people never win 'Survivor'," says Burnett.

"People who make things about murder or drugs or ultra-crime, I guess they think 'edgy' might get ratings but I think we show that family-friendly (material) really works."

"Son of God" opens Friday.

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