The Biz: Gibson on mission to market 'Passion'

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A movie that should be one of the toughest sells in the history of Hollywood-an R-rated religious period piece with relentless violence, subtitles and no stars-could end up being a serious cash cow and a textbook study in both high-profile and below-the-radar marketing.

"The Passion of the Christ" opens Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday, and to ensure a boffo box office, its superstar director Mel Gibson has employed a raft of guerrilla-marketing tactics, appealing to church groups and religious leaders to help him bring out the faithful. He's traded on his celebrity status and the controversy that's swirled around the film for heady impact that's being felt everywhere from late-night talk shows and the cover of Newsweek to religious conventions and Nascar races.

"Mel's on a crusade," says Harry Knowles, founder of the insider movie site aintitcoolnews.com, and one of the few critics to have seen the film. "He's been campaigning for this movie for months and months. He's visited more states than any of the presidential candidates."

It's not the first time that a Christian-themed film has taken advantage of the country's network of churches, bookstores, youth ministries and Bible study groups. Films such as "The Omega Code" and "Veggie Tales" in the `90s tapped those sources successfully.

Early tracking for "The Passion," however, puts it into a different realm altogether. If the data gathered by Nielsen NRG hold true, the movie is en route to as much as $30 million in its first five days of release. That would be unprecedented for an R-rated, subtitled film (it's in Latin and Aramaic). Gibson sunk $25 million of his own money into the production, and as much likely will be spent on prints and advertising, though paid media didn't kick in until last week.

Gibson's Icon Productions hired several Christian marketing firms to help spread the word, and Gibson personally staged a question-and-answer session recently for 3,800 people that originated in suburban Los Angeles and was carried via satellite to churches around the country. The fan Web site, passion-christ.com, asks for church groups to directly support the movie by running local TV ads, posting Internet banners and signing petitions to be sent to local movie theaters asking that the movie be shown.

In this past weekend's Daytona 500, Bobby Labonte's race car carried the movie's logo on its hood. Norm Miller, the chairman of Labonte's sponsor Interstate Batteries, has seen and supports the film.

Neither Icon nor the film's U.S. marketer/distributor, Newmarket Films, responded to repeated requests for interviews.

wide debut

The movie will make its debut on some 2,000 screens, another first for subtitled fare, with a major presence at the country's largest theater chains such as AMC and Regal Cinemas, whose majority holder, Philip Anschutz, is a devout Christian and founder of a company that produces Christian films. "The Passion," which chronicles the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, stars Jim Caviezel as Jesus and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene. Caviezel, in character, appeared on last week's Newsweek cover, and ABC's "Prime Time Live" will devote an hour tonight to the movie, with Diane Sawyer interviewing Gibson.

Another key factor in generating word of mouth, and sure to be a part of ABC's interview, is the charge of anti-Semitism that has played out in the press for months, including an ugly public spat between Gibson and New York Times cultural critic Frank Rich.

"They've turned every liability into an asset," says Paula Silver, who was a key marketer with Newmarket Films on "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." "The pre-release controversy can do nothing but help. This has gotten more free marketing than any movie I can think of."

Knowles contacted Gibson, asking if he could screen the film at his Austin, Texas, film festival in December. "If `The Passion' had played badly, it would've played gloriously badly," Knowles says, noting that more than 250 movie fans and Internet writers were in attendance. "Mel had so much confidence in the movie that he showed it to a bunch of agnostics, and they dug it because it's a dang good story."

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