$125 Million in First-Week Ticket Sales


'Passion' Becomes Textbook Case of Buzz Promotion

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- A movie that could have been one of the toughest sells in the history of Hollywood -- an R-rated religious period piece with relentless
violence, subtitles and no stars -- has become a textbook study in both high-profile and below-the-radar marketing.

$125 million week
The Passion of the Christ, which opened in 3,000 theaters on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday, took in $26.5 million in 24 hours -- a historic benchmark topped only by two other films: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Star Wars. Yesterday, the highly controversial film's U.S. marketer and distributor, Newmarket Films, reported total box office receipts for the first five days of screenings to be $125 million.

Neither Icon nor Newmarket Films responded to repeated requests for interviews.

To create this boffo box office, superstar director Mel Gibson employed a raft of guerrilla-marketing tactics, appealing to church groups and religious leaders to help him bring out the faithful. He traded heavily on his celebrity status and the controversy that has swirled around the film to generate buzz about the movie everywhere from late-night talk shows and the cover of Newsweek to religious conventions and Nascar races.

Anti-Semitism charges
A key factor in generating word of mouth is the charge of anti-Semitism that has played out in the press for months, including an ugly public spat between Mr. Gibson and New York Times cultural critic Frank Rich.

"They’ve turned every liability into an asset," says

Photo: AP
Mel Gibson masterminded one of the highest-grossing movie openings of all time.
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."

Prior to the movie's opening, the Gibson effort sent 250,000 DVDs to Christian ministers and priests around the counrty, as a Web site, passionmaterials.com provided those same clerics with an instant means to order packs of promotional posters, hymnal slip cards and door-hangers they could distribute at their services.

$25 million of own money
Mr. Gibson sunk $25 million of his own money into the production, and as much has likely been spent on prints and advertising, though paid media didn't kick in until early February.

The Passion, which chronicles the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, stars Jim Caviezel as Jesus and Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene. Mr. Caviezel, in character, appeared on last week's Newsweek cover, and ABC's Prime Time Live devoted an hour to the movie, with Diane Sawyer interviewing Mr. Gibson.

"Mel's on a crusade," says Harry Knowles, founder of the insider movie site aintitcoolnews.com. "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.

A different realm
However, Mr. Gibson's success with The Passion puts it into a different realm altogether. The movie's first week's earnings are unprecedented for an R-rated, subtitled film (it's in Latin and Aramaic).

Mr. Gibson's Icon Productions hired several Christian marketing firms to help spread the word, and Mr. Gibson personally staged a question-and-answer session recently for 3,800 people in suburban Los Angeles that 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 the 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.

The movie's debut on so many screens was 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.

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