“Huge Opening” Seen for Gibson’s “Passion”

Times Staff Writer

Three weeks before its release, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” has the industry buzzing -- not just because of its controversial portrayal of Jesus’ last hours -- but because it seems to be generating the kind of interest among moviegoers that could deliver $25 million to $30 million in its first five days.

Tracking numbers -- data measuring a film’s box office prospects -- were delivered to the studios this week, suggesting that audience interest in the film is on par with this weekend’s presumed front-runners, “Barbershop 2” and “Miracle.”

Those numbers, if they hold, would be striking because “Passion” distributor Newmarket Films has yet to run conventional print or television ads. What’s more, on Friday, the ticket-selling group Fandango reported that advance sales for the film comprised 43% of its total sales this week -- remarkable for an R-rated religious-themed movie employing unconventional marketing techniques.


Clearly, “Passion,” directed by an A-list movie star, has had its profile boosted by intense media coverage, much of it centering on questions of whether its depiction could foster anti-Semitism.

Despite its relentlessly graphic images and its dialogue in ancient languages, the film also may be benefiting from an unusual marketing campaign in which Gibson has reached out to sympathetic Christian evangelical churches.

As part of that effort to build an audience for the movie, a satellite-broadcast “training event” will be staged in about 400 churches nationwide today, providing a “boot camp of information” about outreach opportunities, organizers said.

Gibson, who invested $25 million of his own money in the movie, was expected to participate in a live Q & A from Azusa Pacific University. The event is part of a yearlong collaboration between his Icon Entertainment and church groups to create grass-roots support for the film, which opens on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25. Icon declined to comment.

In addition, Outreach Ministry Inc., based in Vista, Calif., sent out DVDs with the movie’s trailer to “most churches in the United States,” according to its website. And the Christian Booksellers Assn. is asking 2,500 retailers to consider selling tickets and posting displays about “Passion” in their stores.

“Everything about this movie has had an agenda -- on the part of those who support it and those who don’t,” said one marketing executive from a studio not affiliated with the project. “That creates a very combustible mix that could reap significant box office results.”

Among U.S. exhibitors showing the film, AMC Entertainment Inc. will be playing “Passion” in 150 theaters nationwide, while the Regal chain has booked it in 420 of its 550 locations. Church groups have reserved entire auditoriums for advance screenings two days before the release, said Dick Westerling, Regal’s senior vice president of marketing.

“We expect a huge opening,” he said. “The volume of group sales is unlike any we’ve experienced. Advance sales are also going well, though not at the level for other event films such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Harry Potter.’ ”

Newmarket has taken charge of the more mainstream marketing, beginning with a teaser-trailer that was shown on “Access Hollywood” and “Good Morning America” in December. Shortly thereafter, the ABC morning show and “Entertainment Tonight” showed the trailer in its entirety, said Newmarket President Bob Berney. Teaser posters, with only the name of the film, the director and the release date, have been in theaters for two months. Finished posters -- featuring James Caviezel, who plays Jesus -- are to go up this weekend. Print, cable and network ads kick in next week, later than usual for the average wide release.

The Internet is adding to the “want-to-see” factor, Berney said. In early December, the film was screened in Texas, at the 24-hour film festival organized by Harry Knowles, who runs the “” movie website. Gibson flew in to take questions from the audience. And “Passion” websites, both rogue and officially sanctioned, received about 8 million hits Thursday, Berney said.

Controversy surrounding the film has also generated abundant free publicity. Prominent critics including the Anti-Defamation League have complained that the film could inspire anti-Semitic reactions among bigots and those raised with the belief of Jews as “Christ killers.”

According to the “tracking” survey, 15% of those polled said “Passion” was their “first choice” among the movies listed, edging out “Barbershop 2” and “Miracle” by 2 or 3 percentage points. In terms of “definite interest,” it fared even better, scoring 49% to “Miracle’s “ 46%, and “Barbershop 2’s” 37%. Still, when it came to overall “awareness,” the Newmarket release took a back seat to “Barbershop 2.”

“The study is only a snapshot, giving executives a feel for where they are now and how to adjust their marketing campaigns,” Berney said. “Still, it shows that there’s a hungry audience out there. Far from having second thoughts, exhibitors are fighting over it. Advance sales are in the several millions [of dollars]. Still, we’re staying with our plan to release it in 2,000 theaters, concentrated a bit more in the Bible Belt. I’m told it’s the widest release for a subtitled film -- certainly for one in Aramaic and Latin.”

Distribution rights for the international market, including Canada, France, Italy and Spain, have, for the most part, been sold. Australia is the only country going “day and date” with the U.S. The film will open in other countries in March.

Some market research insiders call “Passion” a one-of-a kind release with no lessons to be imparted. How many movies receive that kind of media coverage -- or have the clout of a Mel Gibson, they ask? Others contend that the success of the promotional campaign is a case study of how to reach “underserved markets” -- in this case, evangelical Christians. “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie,” an animated 2002 Artisan Entertainment release, took in some $22 million domestically -- primarily because of grass-roots outreach strategies into the Christian marketplace.

Industry analysts say the $30-million forecast may actually be conservative because only “moviegoers” were polled.

“The film could tap into a group of people, in small towns or wherever, who make it their one moviegoing experience of the year,” said an analyst, who declined to be identified by name. “If so, the research could be the tip of the iceberg. Still, questions need to be answered. Did people say ‘The Passion’ was their first choice because they felt they should? Has interest already peaked or will they follow through?”

Berney, for his part, was encouraged -- but cautious. “Given the awareness, I expected a good showing,” he said. “Still, in the end, it’s up to the voters. Until we see how the movie connects with the audience, I’m keeping my cards close to the vest.”