In Plano, Texas, two members of a Baptist mega-church bought out a 20-screen multiplex so 6,000 people could watch the premiere of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" next month. In Costa Mesa, a nondenominational church is canceling services on opening weekend and has rented 10 movie theaters. In Dallas, a NASCAR sponsor plans to redesign its race car's exterior to promote the film. In Riverside, another Baptist church, energized by the film's coming, designed an ad ("You've got questions. We've got the answer.") to be shown on all 18 screens of a multiplex for three months.
Just what kind of box office "The Passion" will do when it opens Feb. 25 is impossible to predict. But it is clear that Gibson has tapped into a network of Christian church-based marketing that has been maturing for decades and that has been waiting, with almost biblical patience, for a high-profile, celebrity-backed religious picture to capture the nation's attention.
"This is so far beyond anything I've seen in terms of putting the word out," said Chapman Clark, an associate professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. "But nobody's ever done what Mel's done: take a huge, personal risk out of a huge, personal conviction that this story needs to be told."
Gibson, who belongs to a splinter Roman Catholic group that rejects the last 40 years of modernizing within the church, put up about $25 million to make "The Passion," which covers the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, culminating in an exceptionally graphic representation of the crucifixion. The movie has been criticized by some Jewish leaders, who fear it will spark anti-Semitism among bigots and those raised with the stereotype that Jews were "Christ-killers." Defenders say the subtitled movie, in which characters speak Latin and Aramaic, is the first film to communicate Christ's true measure of sacrifice. The movie makes clear, they argue, that Christ's death was not the result of Jewish persecution but of man's sin -- making everyone responsible.
Gibson's production company, which will open the movie on about 2,000 screens, is courting the market by hiring several Christian marketing companies to work various segments of the potential audience. The best known is a Vista, Calif., company called Outreach Inc., whose more than 100 employees offer advice to churches seeking to boost membership. The greatest proportion of clients are evangelical Christian churches, which see attracting the "unchurched" as part of their mission.
On a page linked to "The Passion's" website, Outreach founder Scott Evans, who quit a job with a high-tech company a decade ago to become a missionary, encourages churches to exploit "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years.... I encourage you to prayerfully consider how to make the most of this moment. Ask God: How will we as a church encourage people to experience this film?"
The website is full of suggestions: Buy a block of movie tickets and invite members and their friends to attend; ask the theater owner if a pastor could address the audience after the screening; give a "Passion"-related sermon on themes such as forgiveness or everlasting life; distribute "Passion"-themed New Testaments; hold a "Passion" question-and-answer session at church addressing questions such as whether Jesus was a great man, or actually God; blanket a neighborhood with "multiple prayer teams"; and leave "Passion" door-hangers at each home.
This week, supporters of the film announced plans for a satellite-broadcast "training event" for churches on Feb. 7 featuring Gibson and promising "a complete 'boot camp' of information and insights on how to be involved with outreach opportunities tied into 'The Passion.' "
The outreach has not extended to some of those who have been most vocal in their concerns about the project. For example, Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, resorted to sneaking into a screening at a pastors' conference in Florida. But the movie has been in plain sight to many Americans, with numerous screenings before church groups and even a showing for a conference of self-professed film geeks. The movie also has been shown to the pope, setting off a debate over whether the pontiff in effect endorsed the movie's historical accuracy. All of this has stirred Hollywood's most valuable box-office currency: word of mouth.
Church-based marketing has grown increasingly sophisticated, especially in the last decade, under the influence of evangelical Christians, who have used rock 'n' roll, videos, movies and the Internet to deliver Gospel messages. This formed two parallel entertainment worlds -- secular and Christian -- that rarely met. It also stirred among evangelicals the dream of crossover Christian entertainment. Often, however, Christian offerings have been of a lesser quality or creativity than leading entertainment-industry fare. This has been true particularly in movies.