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Will 'The Passion' continue on DVD?

The disc version of Mel Gibson's blockbuster, due in stores today with no extras, is being watched closely to see how its popularity compares with the theatrical release.

August 31, 2004|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

In the hotly competitive DVD marketplace, there's simply no precedent for gauging how today's release of "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's controversial film about the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus, will perform. The unlikely blockbuster already has made $370.3 million in domestic box office and $239.7 million in foreign receipts, for a total of $610 million worldwide. The movie is entering the next phase of a journey that, according to the Gibson camp, could end with a theatrical rerelease and an Oscar campaign.

Twentieth Century Fox is distributing a reported 15 million units -- one of the largest home video shipments of the year. Though the R-rated movie is unlikely to match the numbers of child-oriented fare, advance sales are 20% higher than studio projections.

The nature of the film, however, raises questions: Will parents want to bring the R-rated movie into their living room, accessible to their children? Will the graphic violence and difficult subject matter work against the "repeat viewing" that DVD ownership implies? Will the faith-based audience, many of them infrequent moviegoers, head to video stores as they did to theaters?

In an unusual move, the $29.98 DVD (and the $24.98 VHS tape) contains only the unaltered film with no commentary or behind-the-scenes footage. (Maximizing audio and video quality ate up room on the disc, precluding extras, the studio says.) Still, industry insiders say a "special edition" will be coming out, possibly at Easter time.

The movie is a wild card on the home video front, just as it was in theaters, observes Scott Hettrick, editor in chief of the monthly magazine DVD Exclusive.

"Retailers are bulk-shipping 50 units at a time," he says. "I can't think of a precedent for that. Religious organizations are buying them by the box load so the high side is really unlimited."

Steve Feldstein, senior vice president of Fox Home Entertainment, says that the Christian market is a primary focus of the home video campaign. The studio, which turned down the chance to distribute "The Passion" theatrically, sent information about the release to 260,000 congregations nationwide and e-mailed more than 6 million targeted households. Fox also works with the Christian Booksellers Assn. on an ongoing basis, selling them family fare and religious films such as "The Robe."

"Churches were so instrumental in the success of the film that it only makes sense to include them in the DVD release," Feldstein says.

The faith-based segment isn't a strong component of the home video market, experts note, and some members might not even own a DVD player. Though the hardware is now in more than 60% of American households, holdouts tend to be more religious and conservative -- residents of the small- and mid-sized markets in which "The Passion's" played so well. At least one national retailer, Best Buy, is placing DVD players next to the software to encourage making the leap.

"If the film equals or exceeds the box-office tally -- as most DVD releases do -- Icon [Gibson's production company] stands to make as much as $250 million," Hettrick says. "And, typically, half the business will be done in the first couple of weeks."

Best Buy reports major interest and heavy advance sales in its 628 outlets. Despite the usual limit of three units per customer, store managers have been instructed to work with consumers who want more.

" 'The Passion' could be one of the year's top performers," says Brian Lucas, public relations manager for the company's entertainment group. "You can't compare it to 'Finding Nemo,' but R-rated movies have a different standard for success. This one will certainly be among the top R-rated [home video releases] of all time."

Clearly there's a sense that "The Passion" DVD could have a ripple effect. In addition to the rerelease of several religious titles this week, Paramount Home Video is releasing a DVD titled "The Passion of the Jew" today, featuring three episodes of the Comedy Central "South Park" series. And on Monday, filmmaker Kevin Smith announced the sequel to his cult hit "Clerks" will be titled "The Passion of the Clerks."

Whether the "Passion" DVD will drive hardware sales is something the electronics industry is keeping tabs on. Michael Fidler, senior vice president of the home products division of Sony Electronics, says, "A lot of 'The Passion' audience may be first-time DVD buyers. If they want the movie in the highest-quality format, that could conceivably lead to a bump in DVD player sales, nudging those who've been straddling."

The DVD is expected to be a particularly hot seller among faith-based consumers around the country. Ever since she saw "The Passion," once with her husband and again with a group of teen girls she teaches in a Bible study group, Kellie Hughes, a 39-year-old mother of two in Bradenton, Fla., has been awaiting the video release.

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