Time Warner's New Line Cinema scored a coup by winning an agreement to show its Christian holiday film, "The Nativity Story," a week before its release to U.S. theaters at an unusual venue: the Vatican. Some 7,000 people -- including Pope Benedict XVI -- were expected to attend, along with members of the movie's cast and crew.
It's the first agreement by the world headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church to host a premiere of a Hollywood film, and amounts to an unofficial but priceless endorsement at a time when filmmakers have been reaching out with growing frequency to religious audiences.
"It's amazing that the biggest organized religion in the world is essentially endorsing a movie by holding its premiere," said Denny Dansereau, a marketing consultant who shepherded college and online programs for "The Passion of the Christ." "That could legitimize the movie to Catholics in a big way."
New Line executives, who were on their way to Rome last week, have been reaching out to the faith-and-family community to market the story of Jesus' birth. What better place, then, than the Vatican to launch the film?
"We were hoping just to get the support and approval of the Vatican," said Camela Galano, president of New Line International. "But to have the premiere there was beyond anything we could've wished for."
The studio went through several rounds of screenings for Vatican officials, bishops and priests before getting the nod, just a few weeks ago, under the condition that it would be a more subdued affair than the typical Hollywood red-carpet arrivals. A prayer was to precede the viewing, and a small dinner for New Line executives, Italian distributor Eagle Pictures, the cast and Vatican officials to follow.
"The Nativity Story," with a $65 million production and marketing budget, opens Dec. 1 on 2,700 screens, making it one of the widest launches for an overtly religious-themed movie since "The Passion of the Christ."
The movie, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, marks a major directional change for New Line, better known for slasher franchises such as "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Friday the 13th" and randy comedies such as "Wedding Crashers" and "Austin Powers." Its top grossing movies have been the "The Lord of the Rings" fantasy-adventure films, though it also has released some all-family films, such as "Elf" and romances such as "The Notebook."
Mel Gibson's lesson
But since "The Passion," Hollywood's major studios have realized the power the faith community can wield when it gets behind films that reflect Christian values. "The Passion" racked up a stunning $611.8 million in worldwide box office in its 2004 run, with the total passing $1 billion with DVD revenue.
Some movies with religious overtones, such as Walt Disney Co.'s and Walden Media's "Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," have been hits. Marketing around that film and others targeted ministers and religious groups as well as mass audiences. Filmmakers reached out successfully to African-American churches for Tyler Perry's spiritually-tinged features "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" and "Madea's Family Reunion."
"The Nativity Story" won't mark the first time a Christian movie has had an unusual premiere. A straight-to-DVD sequel, "Left Behind: World at War," premiered at 3,200 churches several days before it hit retailers.
Mainstream studios are stepping somewhat lightly into the religious realm. In other words, there's not likely to be a resurgence of the 1950s and '60s-style epic blockbusters like "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "The Ten Commandments."
Relentless pre-release screenings
A tactic that continues to work for religious-themed films is relentless pre-release screenings. New Line has been showing "The Nativity Story" to various Christian organizations, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and church pastors. On the same day as the Vatican premiere, the movie will be screened on a satellite broadcast service called Christian Communications Network, which goes to 3,000 churches.
The movie is intended to be a humanistic character study of Mary and Joseph, their journey to Bethlehem and Jesus' birth. It stars Oscar nominees Keisha Castle-Hughes ("Whale Rider") and Shohreh Aghdashloo ("House of Sand and Fog"). The filmmaker, Ms. Hardwicke, is a veteran of teen-angst dramas "Thirteen" and "Lords of Dogtown."