Proselytizing, Marketing Linked for Release of ‘Passion’ Film

Times Staff Writers

Mel Gibson offered an explanation Saturday -- via live satellite -- about his personal reasons for making “The Passion of the Christ,” as his publicity team pumped up Christian viewers at hundreds of churches nationwide in a highly orchestrated marketing campaign.

In a 40-minute, live Q&A; before 3,800 invited guests at the evangelical Azusa Pacific University, the 48-year-old Gibson said the inspiration to make an R-rated film that graphically depicts the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life came from his need for introspection.

“You get to a place where, you know, you have to reevaluate your insides and like, change, because you know, I’m a monster. I mean I can be,” he said, at times fidgeting in his untucked red-and-white checked shirt and jeans. “It’s like, you know, I’ve been offered every kind of excess that money and fame brings and it’s not good enough.”


He also denied that the film, to be released Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday, is anti-Semitic, and said he toned down its violence, although he did not reveal specifics. The film has encountered criticism from several prominent Jewish leaders, who fear its portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion could spark anti-Semitism. Several reporters attended the satellite broadcasts at West Coast churches.

Although Gibson has spoken to several groups and some reporters about the film, the question-and-answer session appears to be the first of its kind before a national audience, as he seeks to promote the film.

The Q&A; was moderated by Lee Strobel, the author of a book that analyzed biblical scholars’ evidence of Jesus’ life.

When Strobel questioned Gibson about whether the film will foster anti-Semitism, he responded: “I’m not anti-Semitic. My Gospels are not anti-Semitic.... I’ve shown it to many Jews and they’re like, it’s not anti-Semitic. It’s interesting that the people who say it’s anti-Semitic say that before they saw the film, and they said the same thing after they saw the film.”

The 10 a.m. event was billed as a “training rally” geared toward sympathetic evangelical pastors and church youth group leaders, many of whom believe the film’s intense portrayal of Christ’s suffering can help them attract new members. Although the Azusa event was packed, West Coast churches reported sparse attendance, from about 12 to 50 people, which some pastors attributed to the short time they had to publicize the event.

Despite the low turnout, the film appears to be generating enough buzz that market research suggests it could deliver $25 million to $30 million in box office receipts in the first five days. Gibson put up about $25 million of his own money to make the film. Promoters have not yet used traditional print and television advertising to promote it, relying instead on the grass-roots Christian networks to build an audience. It has also been helped by a great deal of media coverage.

After Gibson spoke, Paul Lauer, the film’s marketing head, urged the audience to go online to order and distribute promotional material, including door hangers and theater-sized posters. Speaking to the mainly student crowd at Asuza Pacific and youth groups nationwide, Lauer said, “Now is the time for you guys to do your job because the best advertising will be word-of-mouth, from people in the pews.”

He said it’s up to “girls” to “get in those chat rooms and talk it up.” Boys, he said, can do “the heavy lifting” like putting up movie posters in dorms and on the college president’s door.

After hearing the pitch on satellite TV, Debbie Maples of Hilltop Community Church in Richmond, Calif., said that she intends to throw a movie premiere party for friends because the film offers “a great opportunity to tell the story about the greatest man who ever lived.”

Asked if he was concerned that churches were being enlisted in a Hollywood marketing campaign, the Rev. Dennis D. Nelson of Christ Lutheran Church in West Covina said Christians had an obligation to support the film.

“It is a powerful portrayal of the passion of Christ and I think we as Christians have to get behind it and support it. If Mel Gibson makes a movie like this and Christians don’t go to it, we have blown it.”

Others disagreed, among them Kenneth L. Waters Sr., assistant professor of the New Testament at Azusa Pacific University. Waters attended the Saturday screening and heard Lauer’s pitch. (Only the Azusa audience saw the entire film. The satellite feed featured only the interview with Gibson and the promotional pitch.)

“I think the marketing aspect is a little bit too heavy-handed, personally. I really have some difficulty with it. I have difficulty with tying marketing with evangelism,” Waters said. He said support for the film should be allowed to “arise naturally” from word-of-mouth discussions.

But Waters said the movie was “gripping and very captivating ... and pretty much held the line as far as the biblical story was concerned.” He said he did not think the film was anti-Semitic.

Among the film’s critics is Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who has seen it twice. He said Saturday that the movie is “the work of Mel Gibson,” and not a story from the New Testament.

“As someone who has dealt with the issue of anti-Semitism professionally since 1977, I know about what it is more than Mel Gibson,” Hier said. “Every Jew who appears in this film, except for the disciples of Christ, are portrayed cruelly and portrayed as a people with an almost sinister look in their eyes.... Jews who see this film, I believe, will be overwhelmingly horrified.”

Gibson said the R-rating is justified, calling the scenes of the crucifixion brutal and relentless. “Part of what I was endeavoring to do was to kind of push it to the edge a little bit,” he said. When Strobel suggested that he could have toned the film down, Gibson responded, “Dude, I did tone it down.”

Times staff writers Stephanie Chavez and Daren Briscoe contributed to this report from Los Angeles. Times researcher Lynn Marshall reported from Seattle. Times contributor Robert Hollis reported from Richmond, Calif.