In Plano, Texas, two members of a Baptist mega-church bought out a 20-screen multiplex so 6,000 people could watch the premiere of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” next month. In Costa Mesa, a nondenominational church is canceling services on opening weekend and has rented 10 movie theaters. In Dallas, a NASCAR sponsor plans to redesign its race car’s exterior to promote the film. In Riverside, another Baptist church, energized by the film’s coming, designed an ad (“You’ve got questions. We’ve got the answer.”) to be shown on all 18 screens of a multiplex for three months.
Just what kind of box office “The Passion” will do when it opens Feb. 25 is impossible to predict. But it is clear that Gibson has tapped into a network of Christian church-based marketing that has been maturing for decades and that has been waiting, with almost biblical patience, for a high-profile, celebrity-backed religious picture to capture the nation’s attention.
“This is so far beyond anything I’ve seen in terms of putting the word out,” said Chapman Clark, an associate professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. “But nobody’s ever done what Mel’s done: take a huge, personal risk out of a huge, personal conviction that this story needs to be told.”
Gibson, who belongs to a splinter Roman Catholic group that rejects the last 40 years of modernizing within the church, put up about $25 million to make “The Passion,” which covers the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life, culminating in an exceptionally graphic representation of the crucifixion. The movie has been criticized by some Jewish leaders, who fear it will spark anti-Semitism among bigots and those raised with the stereotype that Jews were “Christ-killers.” Defenders say the subtitled movie, in which characters speak Latin and Aramaic, is the first film to communicate Christ’s true measure of sacrifice. The movie makes clear, they argue, that Christ’s death was not the result of Jewish persecution but of man’s sin -- making everyone responsible.
Gibson’s production company, which will open the movie on about 2,000 screens, is courting the market by hiring several Christian marketing companies to work various segments of the potential audience. The best known is a Vista, Calif., company called Outreach Inc., whose more than 100 employees offer advice to churches seeking to boost membership. The greatest proportion of clients are evangelical Christian churches, which see attracting the “unchurched” as part of their mission.
On a page linked to “The Passion’s” website, Outreach founder Scott Evans, who quit a job with a high-tech company a decade ago to become a missionary, encourages churches to exploit “perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years.... I encourage you to prayerfully consider how to make the most of this moment. Ask God: How will we as a church encourage people to experience this film?”
The website is full of suggestions: Buy a block of movie tickets and invite members and their friends to attend; ask the theater owner if a pastor could address the audience after the screening; give a “Passion"-related sermon on themes such as forgiveness or everlasting life; distribute “Passion"-themed New Testaments; hold a “Passion” question-and-answer session at church addressing questions such as whether Jesus was a great man, or actually God; blanket a neighborhood with “multiple prayer teams”; and leave “Passion” door-hangers at each home.
This week, supporters of the film announced plans for a satellite-broadcast “training event” for churches on Feb. 7 featuring Gibson and promising “a complete ‘boot camp’ of information and insights on how to be involved with outreach opportunities tied into ‘The Passion.’ ”
The outreach has not extended to some of those who have been most vocal in their concerns about the project. For example, Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, resorted to sneaking into a screening at a pastors’ conference in Florida. But the movie has been in plain sight to many Americans, with numerous screenings before church groups and even a showing for a conference of self-professed film geeks. The movie also has been shown to the pope, setting off a debate over whether the pontiff in effect endorsed the movie’s historical accuracy. All of this has stirred Hollywood’s most valuable box-office currency: word of mouth.
Church-based marketing has grown increasingly sophisticated, especially in the last decade, under the influence of evangelical Christians, who have used rock ‘n’ roll, videos, movies and the Internet to deliver Gospel messages. This formed two parallel entertainment worlds -- secular and Christian -- that rarely met. It also stirred among evangelicals the dream of crossover Christian entertainment. Often, however, Christian offerings have been of a lesser quality or creativity than leading entertainment-industry fare. This has been true particularly in movies.
“There have been zillions of Christian movies, and they have all been terrible,” best-selling Christian author Frank Peretti told a religion news service two years ago. The next year, Peretti’s “Hangman’s Curse” was released on film and -- described by one reviewer as “perhaps the world’s first Christian paranormal teen horror film” -- grossed only $150,000.
Affinity marketing produces rare word-of-mouth film successes -- “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” first targeted Greek Americans at parades around the nation and employed an e-mail campaign directed at people of Greek heritage. But the combination of Gibson’s fame and reverential testimonials by churchgoers and clergy who have seen preview screenings has convinced many observers of religion and cinema that “The Passion” is a singular phenomenon. The word of mouth has been so great that Gibson, whose marketing representative did not return a phone call seeking comment, may make back his investment during the opening weekend, said Ralph Winter, a producer of secular and Christian films who has yet to see the movie.
Some clergy described a spellbound effect when 4,500 pastors attended a screening this month at Saddleback Church in the Orange County suburb of Lake Forest. “When it finished, there was dead silence for five minutes,” said Ric Olsen, senior associate pastor at Harbor Trinity Baptist Church. “They let people kind of absorb it.”
“It blew me away,” said Michael Pierpoint, pastor of evangelism at Magnolia Avenue Baptist Church in Riverside, whose church bought seats for two screenings and purchased the “You’ve-got-questions” ad at a local multiplex. “I’m not an easy believer ... but to watch it depict the crucifixion so clearly -- it brought a new level of my understanding the depths God was willing to go to have a relationship with me.”
One problem for movie marketers is that the Christian marketplace is not a monolith. For “The Passion,” one group -- evangelicals -- fits easily into the role of promotional missionaries for the film. Not only does the movie line up closely with their theology, it also offers an opportunity to re-energize the faithful and evangelize to family and friends by simply inviting them to “a Mel Gibson movie.”
Repeated endorsements from the unofficial leaders of the evangelical world -- Billy Graham, Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren, for instance -- carry a multiplier effect through the ranks of thousands of pastors. Warren, whose church recently bought 17,000 tickets, has promoted the movie heavily on his www.pastors.com website and will send out a special newsletter to 115,000 pastors next week encouraging them to promote the movie and use it in their teaching.
Catholics, however, have been more tentative in their embrace. The reasons include a general institutional disdain for promoting commercial ventures, an uneasiness over reigniting a centuries-long prejudice against Jews, and Gibson’s heretical brand of Catholicism.
A screening last summer was well received by more than 300 Jesuit priests at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, members of an order known for intellect and independent views. But it would be antithetical to Catholic tradition for the Jesuits and other clerics to set up websites or sell tickets to movie theaters they reserved.
Nelvin Vos, executive director of the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture in Maxatawny, Pa., a group of artists and theologians, said many Catholics are wary of definitive interpretations of Scripture. “It’s difficult to get it balanced,” said Vos, who has yet to see the movie. “Gibson tries to be totally objective. That’s part of the movie’s strength and part of its problem.”
Still, some conservative Catholics have shown enthusiasm for “The Passion.” “It will move you the way no [other] movie ever has or will,” William A. Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, wrote in a review sent to his group’s 350,000 members. “To be sure, it is tough to watch at times, but then again there is no way to sugarcoat a scourging and a crucifixion, and Mel Gibson is not a sugarcoating kind of guy.”
Few Jewish leaders have been invited to screenings, and that has left many rabbis frustrated and unable to comment on “The Passion.” Leaders from two Jewish organizations who recently have seen the film denounced it, saying it had the potential to inspire anti-Semitism. However, the chance of a boycott supported by Jews is unlikely, observers say.
“The last thing we want to do is promote an action that undercuts American values” of free speech, said Rabbi Marc S. Dworkin, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Orange County chapter. His group will pair rabbis and priests to see the film and discuss it with Catholic and Jewish congregations.
Rabbi Mark Diamond said what’s important isn’t who sees “The Passion” but how they discuss it later. “We don’t want the movie to stand in the way of 40 years of progress between Jews and Christians,” said Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “We have too much invested.”
Daniel Frankforter, a professor of medieval history at Penn State Erie, said the fusing of a movie star and organized religion breaks with historical distrust.
Through the 1950s, “Hollywood self-censored its products to ensure that churches would not urge their members to boycott,” Frankforter said. Beginning in the late ‘60s, though, filmmakers were more daring about portraying Jesus’ humanity and did well enough at the box office to dispel “the myth of the church’s power over the ticket-buying public.” The rise of the evangelical churches set the stage for a project such as “The Passion.”
“I’m not at all surprised that when Gibson throws them a piece of raw meat like this, they jump on it,” Frankforter said.
Gibson’s movie figures to be successful, Frankforter said, because it contains the violence and gore of contemporary pop cinema and “serves the old conservative agenda of persuading viewers of the literal historicity of the gospels.”
Yet he and other observers wonder whether the film will be successful as an evangelical tool or merely a devotional work for the faithful.
“It’s fascinating that Christian churches are shelling out thousands and thousand of dollars to purchase tickets for an R-rated movie,” said Jonathan Bock, president of Grace Hill Media, which markets mainstream movies to faith groups. “The question is, is this going to be an isolated event or are churches going to be the force in the marketplace that they should be?”
Jacob Bonnemas, 26, who, along with his father, Arch, paid $42,000 for 6,000 tickets to “Passion” for the 22,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano as well as thousands of interested strangers, has no doubts.
“This is a life-altering movie, and I think that when Hollywood sees people coming to this movie in this volume ... they’ll see a gigantic marketplace looking for real meaning in life,” he said.
Correspondent Dana Calvo contributed to this report from Texas.