Marketing continues: Producers keep up passion for 'Passion'

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"The Passion of the Christ" has stunned even the believers. Now the challenge is how to keep Jesus a superstar.

The film could end its domestic run with more than $350 million at the box office, a number that would land it in the top 10 grossing movies of all time. Its performance has buoyed Hollywood's overall bottom line 3% to 4% year over year. In its three weeks in theaters, it passed "The Matrix Reloaded" to become the highest-grossing R-rated movie in history and leaped over another unlikely hit, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," as the biggest independent movie ever.

But when it comes to marketing the movie and its spinoff products, you ain't seen nothing yet. As Easter approaches, a slew of new initiatives is planned.

"There's been nothing conventional about how this movie and its marketing have unfolded," said Alan Nierob, a spokesman for producer Mel Gibson's Icon Productions. "It's defied all the practiced way of doing things."

inspired products

The film's Sony Music soundtrack is a best seller and has spawned another CD. A compilation record from Universal South Records, "Songs Inspired by ... The Passion of the Christ," will feature pop stars such Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Nick Cave. And, in perhaps the most politically incorrect form of flattery, the creators of Comedy Central's "South Park" will parody it in an episode dubbed "The Passion of the Easter Bunny."

Supporters are using cutting-edge technology to hype the movie with a full-page ad in USA Today on Good Friday that will thank Mr. Gibson for making the film and give information about how to download movie-related MP3s. Circulation is expected to be 20 million for the ad, paid for by an Atlanta-based religious conglomerate called In Touch Ministries.

Icon and distributor Newmarket Films, meanwhile, will keep pushing the movie through print and TV ads, with a new campaign expected in the next few weeks that encourages those who haven't yet seen the movie to do so and nudges the already-converted to see it again. Meanwhile, the 15 companies hired by Icon to cultivate the religious community have kept their grassroots efforts in place and will speak again to churches and ministers about Easter trips to the theaters.

A dissection of some of the movie's marketing details to date, shepherded by Icon's Los Angeles-based marketing consultant Paul Lauer, reveals a campaign that covered all the obvious bases and a number of far-less-than-obvious ones.

varied approach

One of the 15 marketing firms, Los Angeles-based Fuzebox Media Group, organized screenings of the movie for ministers, college students, action-sports stars and members of the Patriots football team the day before Super Bowl Sunday.

Those individuals and groups then spread the word about the film in ways that included a few Patriots wearing "The Passion" hats during media interviews leading up to the big game, and famous surfer Al Merrick buying a full-page ad in Primedia's Surfer magazine endorsing the movie. The English band Delirious hyped the film during its worldwide tour by showing the trailer, passing out materials and holding Internet audio chats that went out to 62 countries.

"We got a lot of exposure without spending media dollars," said Denny Dansereau, Fuzebox's president. "We promoted initially to what we knew was the core audience who'd go see the movie as soon as it opened."

Fuzebox, which specializes in digital media, also worked with nearly 10,000 Christian bookstores and other retailers, giving marketing materials for in-store displays. The company created 27 Web sites, including a number that were targeted specifically at college students. Through connections with groups such as the Baptist Student Union and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Fuzebox signed up some 18,000 students to help market the film. One tool they used was a Fuzebox-created "e-vite" that students could send to each other via e-mail to organize trips to the theater. Another Web-based tactic gave pastors and youth group leaders a downloadable form for parents to give consent for their under-18-year-old children to see the film.

Virginia-based InService America, which counts among its databases Promise Keepers, Robert Schuller's ministry and Trinity Broadcast Network, convinced Icon to take screenings on the road and then helped promote those events. Executives there sent out 25 million e-mails and fielded 100,000 phone inquiries about the movie. They, with Prelude Worldwide Ministries, also were responsible for 1.7 million advance ticket sales through an alliance with Regal Cinemas and Fandango, amounting to somewhere between $10 million and $15 million in sales, said InService president Carl Townsend.

free publicity

"The biggest thing we did was to get pastors behind this movie," Mr. Townsend said. "In turn, they gave away so much free publicity."

A San Diego-area company called Outreach Ministries, which helps churches bring in new members, spearheaded a direct-mail campaign to millions of people in its network. Outreach's President Doug Martinez and his team created DVD kits with the movie's trailer and interviews with Mr. Gibson and star Jim Caviezel. The kits told church groups how to use the movie as a way to bulk up their membership.

"Our message was, `Go see the movie and then go to a church for follow-up questions and discussion,"' Mr. Martinez said. "We're always trying to identify trends that the church can engage in. We didn't support this because it was Mel Gibson or because it was a Jesus movie. We knew the church [community] could stand behind it."

This was the first Hollywood film that Outreach had ever been involved with, and the organization activated each piece of its network, from Outreach magazine to Web sites to phone banks.

Tulsa, Okla., company OnCore Group tapped into non-profits and religious organizations like Focus on the Family, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the 700 Club, sending out 11 million pieces of marketing literature. Focus on the Family alone has a worldwide audience of 200 million people a day via its radio show, said Tim Abare, OnCore's chief executive. "The story resonated very well with the gatekeepers in this market," he said.

As for the paid media, a longtime Newmarket collaborator, L.A.-based Global Doghouse, created the trailers with an eye toward mass-audience appeal. The spots stayed away from the movie' graphic violence and focused on its epic nature, sweeping cinematography and story. Executives there said an Easter-specific campaign could try to reach moviegoers who have stayed away because of the violence.

"The image of the resurrection hasn't been used in the marketing," said Matt Lian, Global Doghouse's creative director. "I could see using that as a way to speak to people who've been hesitant to commit to such a challenging movie."

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