Determined to insulate his controversial "The Passion of Christ" and to personally control the movie's challenging marketing, director Mel Gibson has decided to distribute it through his company, Icon Entertainment, according to sources close to the film.
The story of the last hours in Jesus Christ's life, "The Passion of Christ" will be released nationwide by Icon on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25. Newmarket Films, which has distributed "Whale Rider" and "Memento," will assist Icon in shipping prints of the film and collecting money from theaters.
Gibson will bypass Hollywood's traditional means of distribution, in which studios and independent companies arrange for a film's marketing, publicity, distribution and accounting. Gibson showed the film to 20th Century Fox, but Fox declined to distribute it.
The movie has been both praised and condemned by religious leaders since Gibson completed filming this year.
Many of the film's critics have not seen the movie but have criticized an early screenplay, saying it demonizes Jews. The Anti-Defamation League has suggested Gibson modify the film so it would be "free of any anti-Semitic messages."
But many of Gibson's supporters who have been invited to early screenings of the film have extolled its spirituality. Gibson has started showing the film to top Hollywood talent agents to build support within the film industry.
Gibson decided to distribute the film himself for a number of reasons, according to several of his advisors. By choosing to personally handle the film, Gibson avoids the potentially awkward spectacle of having other studios turn it down. A variety of possible buyers, including Miramax Films Corp. and Lions Gate Films Inc., had expressed interest in seeing the film but had not been shown it.
A more important factor in deciding to release the film himself, these advisors said, was that Gibson didn't want a distributor to be subjected to the same intense public criticism that he and others have faced.
When Universal produced and distributed 1988's "The Last Temptation of Christ," the studio -- and even the homes of its senior executives -- were picketed. At an August rally condemning "The Passion of Christ," Democratic New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind warned other movie companies that "they should not distribute this film. This is unhealthy for Jews all over the world."
Furthermore, by handling the film, Gibson can remain closely involved in every decision surrounding the film's release, from what the movie's poster looks like to which theaters will show the film.
Gibson and his representatives have met with film buyers for at least three of the nation's leading theater circuits. The film will receive a broad nationwide release, but it's not yet known how many screens it will be shown on. Regal Entertainment Group, the country's largest theater chain, already has seen the film, which stars Jim Caviezel as Jesus and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene. The actors speak in ancient Aramaic, but the film carries subtitles.
Although Gibson's decision carries some risks, Icon has experience in distribution. The company released most of Gibson's recent movies in Britain, New Zealand and Australia.
Gibson, who won the best director Oscar for "Braveheart," has invested more than $20 million of his own money in the production, and may need to spend that much again for marketing, film prints and advertising.
At the same time, earlier self-distributed movies -- many of them also religious dramas -- have enjoyed only modest returns at the box office.
In 1999, for example, "The Omega Code" was self-distributed and grossed about $13 million. A year later, Cloud Ten Entertainment self-distributed "Left Behind," and grossed $4.3 million. Both films sold large numbers of videocassettes and DVDs.
Matthew Crouch, who produced "The Omega Code" and has seen "The Passion of Christ," said he applauded Gibson's decision.
"I don't think there are any risks, unless you consider using your own money as a risk," Crouch said.
To help build support for his film, Gibson has shown it to select religious leaders. He showed a four-minute clip from it in August to thousands of evangelical Christians at Orange County's annual Harvest Crusade. Gibson and Icon probably will step up that screening schedule as the film's release draws closer.
"That's what ultimately makes the difference," Crouch said. "We had people on the ground making connections with the people who are going to see the movie."
Gibson's movie was originally titled "The Passion," but that title was owned by Miramax, because it owns movie rights to the Jeanette Winterson novel of the same name.