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Friday, March 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Will the success of 'The Passion' beget other biblical films?

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

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Mel Gibson may be preaching to the choir with "The Passion of the Christ," but the choir turned out to be massive.

The faithful and the curious have flocked to Gibson's ultraviolent biblical drama since its Feb. 25 opening. Financed by Gibson himself for a reported $25 million — because no studio would touch it — the film has grossed $264 million in North America in its first 19 days. That's heaven-sent success for a foreign-language film with no recognizable stars, and it's expected to continue.

Rob Schwartz, head of distribution for Newmarket Films, has said that the film likely will do well in theaters at least through Easter (April 11), and it should ultimately gross between $350 million and $400 million. This would be roughly equivalent to figures for this year's big Oscar winner, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," which has earned $371.2 million since its December opening and is the sixth highest-grossing film of all time.

"The Passion" has a long way to go before reaching the top of the all-time box-office chart. "Titanic," released in 1997, made more than $600 million domestically; the original "Star Wars," at $461 million, is a distant second. But Gibson's film has set a few all-time records already:

• It's the highest-grossing independently financed film, surpassing "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (which earned $241 million).

Mel Gibson
• In its first week, it easily passed "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to become the highest-grossing foreign-language film released in North America.

• This week, "The Passion" should become the highest-grossing R-rated film in history (passing "The Matrix Reloaded," with $281 million).

• And it's easily the highest-grossing religious-themed theatrical release, though that's not much of a competition. In the '50s, biblical epics like "The Ten Commandments" and "The Robe" were extremely popular, but box-office charts are traditionally not adjusted for inflation. Recent religious-themed movies, such as "Left Behind" and "The Omega Code," performed modestly at the box office.

So what is it about "The Passion" that caught the attention of such a vast audience? Credit Gibson's masterful (some might call it manipulative) marketing scheme that included early screenings for Christian leaders, rallying-the-faithful outreach efforts in association with Christian marketing groups, and carefully chosen interview opportunities on Gibson's part. (He declined most press but did a heavily promoted prime-time television interview with Diane Sawyer shortly before the film's release.)

Jim Caviezel plays Jesus in "The Passion of The Christ."
The result was that long before most of us had seen "The Passion," all of us were talking about it — the kind of publicity no Hollywood budget can buy.

Though it's logical to expect a new wave of religious-themed projects to follow in the wake of "The Passion's" success, this may not happen — it would be difficult for any subsequent film to follow its pattern. And one film's success doesn't necessarily signal the revival of a genre. (When "Chicago" became a smash hit and an Oscar winner, some predicted the rebirth of the movie musical. We're still waiting.)

Gibson's film was made outside of the usual avenues, so it's not an easy comparison. "What makes this (success) tough to replicate is that Gibson went into it unconcerned with the usual things, including making money," said film critic Leonard Maltin to USA Today. "So it's hard to say whether 'The Passion' will have any ripple effect."

"I wouldn't know how to duplicate this," Jeff Robinov, president of production at Warner Bros., told The New York Times. He said that "The Passion's" success didn't necessarily spur him to try to reach a religious audience. "But," he added, "if a guy like Mel Gibson came in with a film that had a sociological, theological message — a religious message — that was controversial, I wouldn't run from it." (Get ready: Gibson this week said in an ABC radio interview that he was interested in the story behind the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah — the revolt of the Maccabees.)

Henry Ian Cusick portrays Jesus on the big screen in "The Gospel of John."
But you don't have to look very far to see the first direct beneficiary of Gibson's film: "The Gospel of John," which found little success during its limited 2003 release in a handful of U.S. cities, will make its Seattle theatrical debut April 2 in the hopes of catching some of the "Passion" audience. The Canadian film, described as a word-for-word adaptation of the Gospel of John, features narration by Christopher Plummer. It has earned about $4 million since its fall release.

All this talk about "The Passion" won't be dying anytime soon. The movie opens in about 30 countries in Europe, Asia and South America over the next several weeks. It'll be interesting to see how the film does overseas, especially in less-religious countries.

Variety notes that "The Passion" has done less well in Canada (though it still tops the box-office charts), partly due to far fewer sales to church groups. "The big difference is that there are less evangelical Christians (in Canada)," Yves Dion of Equinox Films (the Canadian distributor of "The Passion") told Variety.

So who, exactly, is going to this film? A recent Gallup poll, reported in The New York Times earlier this week, found (not too surprisingly) that people who regularly attended church were more likely to attend "The Passion" than those who did not, and that older people were less likely to attend.

Polls also have shown the film to be doing unusually well in the South and with Latino and African-American audiences. Though the film's early audiences were predominantly female, it is now attracting roughly equal numbers of men and women. Newmarket has observed that the film is popular with young men, perhaps drawn to the blood and gore.

Like "Titanic" a few years back (a movie that also came with plenty of advance buzz), "The Passion" has become a phenomenon, complete with fervent supporters and detractors. Some praise "The Passion" as a sublime spiritual experience; others, including many movie critics, found the film's relentless emphasis on violence and death, rather than resurrection, inappropriate and disturbing. It's certain, though, that talk about the film will continue, long after it's no longer news.

Moira Macdonald:


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