Films and television projects on belief and freedom of worship for Universal Pictures, Miramax, PBS, Lionsgate, and Fox Searchlight have included The Last Temptation of Christ, The Magdalene Sisters, Millions, A Brief History of Disbelief, Deliver Us from Evil, The Mystery of Love, Heaven, and Forgiveness.
The Last Temptation of Christ: worlds collide
Josh is famous for managing the controversy and crisis for this film - and with this project, he wrote the playbook on modern entertainment crisis management. Directed by Martin Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ was an adaptation of the classic novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. When Universal Pictures agreed to co-finance and distribute the film, they hadn’t fully considered the possible ramifications and controversy that would certainly arise as the worlds of Hollywood and organized Christianity collided. Primarily, the studio wanted to be in business with the great director Martin Scorsese and this was the film he wanted to make. For them, it was a no-brainer. As the film was being edited, Josh and his team were brought in to analyze the situation, come up with a workable strategy, and then manage the specialized communications needed if and when controversy began.
The Last Temptation of Christ became undeniably the most controversial movie ever released by a major studio. Conservative Christian and Catholic organizations considered the film blasphemy, a frontal attack on their faith and another battle with liberal Hollywood in the ongoing culture war. Universal was bombarded by millions of protest letters and calls and studio executives received death threats. On literally thousands of Christian radio stations and cable television networks, the studio was attacked daily as the bastion of sin and corruption. Boycotts were implemented against Universal Pictures and all their corporate subsidiaries and partners. Many theaters refused to book the film, pressured by visits from local church groups and ministers. One leading evangelist offered to buy the film from Universal and then hold a public burning of the print. A few weeks before the opening, 50,000 demonstrators marched in the street in front of the studio.
The special communications and crisis management campaign that Josh created and implemented involved monitoring fundamentalists and conservative Catholic organizations; developing a whole range of new written materials, press kits and advertising; media training key executives; developing and implementing a special media campaign; recruiting progressive religious leaders across the country to support the film and counter the Christian right; and holding special screenings in dozens of cities for human rights and progressive religious organizations and leaders. In response to the offer to buy and then burn the film, Josh created a unique advertising campaign that defended the studio’s right to artistic expression — full page ads ran in 20 major newspapers.
Josh directed a special team of 40 professionals, which included training 30 people who went into each community as the film opened, working to ensure that the theaters were not sabotaged or shut down by demonstrators. Team members, which included seasoned political advance operatives, former FBI and police officers, collaborated with theater personnel, law enforcement, and local media. It should be noted that during this time, there had been hundreds of violent attacks against abortion clinics and there was reasonable concern that extremists might target theaters in a similar manner.
As it turned out, there were over 250 organized attacks against theaters when the film opened — but all were managed and contained, because the teams were trained and in place. There were no surprises. (When the film opened in France, theaters were bombed resulting in a few deaths. They were not prepared.)
The campaign to market this film and to defend Universal was in itself a fascinating and complex story that pitted the right to artistic expression against the rising tide of religious fundamentalism in America. Universal inadvertently found itself on the front lines of this continuing long-term struggle.
The unique crisis management campaign that Josh created and successfully implemented remains a case study on how to manage a controversial film and how to work with local theaters responsibly. Look at the results: The studio survived the storm, was perceived as defenders of artistic freedom, the boycotts failed, theaters showed the film without being shut down, and no executives lost their jobs. The film did not make a lot of money, but that was never expected.
Josh’s campaign set the standard for entertainment crisis management. He went on to work on many other controversial films, hired by Paramount, Sony, Warners, Miramax, Lionsgate, Focus Features, HBO and Showtime.
A book entitled Hollywood under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right and the Culture Wars by Thomas Lindlof, was published in July 2008, 20 years after the release of the film. Much of the book chronicles Josh and his team's work on the film.
The Magdalene Sisters: Centuries of Abuse
The film The Magdalene Sisters told the story of the infamous Magdalene laundries in Ireland, a long and sad chapter in the history of the Catholic Church. For nearly 200 years, hundreds of thousands of young woman lived in near prison-like circumstances, forced to work long hours for no pay.
Hired by Miramax, Josh developed an extensive screening program working closely with organizations that focused on the growing crisis of sexual abuse by priests. Screenings were also set up for women’s and adoption organizations. In a unique development, Josh uncovered new historical facts about the Magdalene laundries that existed in the United States, which then became an additional element of the publicity effort.
Directly by Danny Boyle, Millions is a beautiful, sweet film with strong religious and spiritual themes. Fox Searchlight hired Josh to reach out to the religious media and organizations to promote the film. A special screening program was implemented. The film was widely praised in religious publications.
A Brief History of Disbelief: Questioning and Doubt
Jonathan Miller, author, director, and commentator, recalls the origins of his own lack of belief and uncovers the hidden story of atheism in A History of Disbelief, three highly acclaimed one-hour programs originally broadcast on the BBC. The series was presented on many U.S. public television stations in 2007. Josh was hired to promote the film not only to television journalists, but also religious writers and editors.
Deliver Us from Evil
Deliver Us from Evil is a feature length documentary directed by Amy Berg that focused on a notorious priest pedophile who admitted to having molested and raped 25 children in Northern California between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Released by Lionsgate in 2006, Josh worked with many organizations concerned with clergy abuse as well as the media the covers religious issues. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature losing out to An Inconvenient Truth, which Josh also worked on.
I ♥ Huckabees: A Wild Ride
Directed by celebrated filmmaker David O. Russell, I ♥ Huckabees was a wild existential comedy starring Dustin Hoffman and Lilly Tomlin. Fox Searchlight hired Josh to reach out to special audiences, set up a screening program for religious and new age leaders and groups, etc.
Heaven: The Ultimate Coming Attraction
In 1987, Diane Keaton produced a feature length documentary, Heaven, a wacky look at how people and religions view the afterlife: “the ultimate coming attraction.” Josh was hired by the distributor to work directly with Diane as well as create a unique campaign that reached out to special audiences and media. Diane appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair.
Promised a Miracle
Starring Rosanna Arquette and Judge Reinhold, Promised a Miracle was a 1988 tele-film based on the true story of a couple whose child died because his parents only believed in faith healing and refused to provide medical attention. Josh was hired to manage the publicity for the film for both entertainment and religion media.
Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate is a four-hour, two-part PBS special that aired nationally in 2011, exploring the challenge of forgiving and forgiveness. Created by veteran producer Helen Whitney, the program is an in-depth remarkable look at a timeless and profound aspect of human nature. Josh was asked to handle special aspects of the communications effort including securing an introduction to the program’s companion book from the Dalai Lama, setting up special advance screenings, and handling special media approaches.
The Mystery of Love
Produced by renowned public television producer Joan Konner, The Mystery of Love is a 2006 PBS special that explored the many kinds of love that give shape and meaning to life. The program was presented by Anna Deveare Smith. Josh was hired to promote the film to television journalists as well as non-entertainment reporters and editors.
Neurons to Nirvana
A 2013 documentary film by Canadian filmmaker Oliver Hockenhull, Neurons to Nirvana examines the evidence for the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs. Josh reached out to non-entertainment media who related to the key themes in the film.