- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Mel Gibson is aiming “The Passion of the Christ” straight for the heartland, steering clear of a segment of the population he feels is gunning for him: the secular metropolitan elite.

“The Passion,” which is being distributed by buzzy Newmarket Films (“Monster,” “Whale Rider”), is opening widely in the South and the Midwest but only sporadically in urban hubs such as Manhattan and Los Angeles. The release pattern is decidedly odd for a movie that, despite the media firestorm it has ignited, is essentially an independent, small-budget, artsy project.

“Never before have I seen a film come together with this particular confluence of factors,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking Exhibitor Relations Co.

The theatrical bookings of the movie, as reported by Roger Friedman of Fox News, read like a precinct-by-precinct get-out-the-vote drive: widely available, for example, in Catholic-Cuban Miami, but on scanty offer in Jewish Boca Raton; 10 theaters in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, but only two in Chicago.

Was this strategy a midstream pivot improvised in response to the vehement protests from Jewish leaders concerned that “The Passion,” as Anti-Defamation League President Abraham Foxman fears, will fuel anti-Semitic sentiment, or perhaps even violence?

The Manhattan-based Entertainment Weekly magazine, in its cover story last week, speculated that Mr. Gibson has been reacting spitefully to what he perceives as a hostile press. It criticized him for limiting early screenings to friendly audiences from which reporters and critics were barred, thus creating friction where none need have existed.

Mr. Gibson has indeed developed a particular distaste for the New York press, and the antagonism seems to be mutual.

It was the New York Times Magazine that, early in the game, spread fear with an interview with Mr. Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, who sounded in print like a rabid Catholic schismatic and Holocaust denier. Mr. Gibson bridled, too, at the New York Post’s screening of a pirated copy of the movie.

The other possibility is that the Christian-centric marketing and highly selective advance screening policy of “The Passion” had been the plan all along, even before the controversy erupted.

It’s no coincidence, after all, that instead of opening the film with a springtime red carpet premiere in Los Angeles, Mr. Gibson chose a midwinter and midweek launch on an austere Christian holy day: Ash Wednesday.

Call Mel Gibson a shrewd operator if you must, but let’s not be naive. After all, targeting audiences by demographic attributes, handpicking opinion-molders and screening audiences to optimize favorable advance word-of-mouth is called … marketing.

Why should he bother sending prints to areas of the country that would rather rent a DVD copy of “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Martin Scorsese’s revisionist saga, than see “The Passion of the Christ”?

Why not circumvent the mainstream instead and, like the Christian literature industry, create your own market?

Newmarket didn’t return calls and e-mails for this story, but Mr. Gibson’s publicist, Alan Nierob, says the strategy was established at the beginning by Mr. Gibson and his Los Angeles-based company, Icon Productions.

“A lot of the grass-roots outreach came from Icon early on,” he says.

Mr. Nierob is referring to the multiple screenings of the movie Mr. Gibson has hosted for church leaders and congregants across the country.

One here in Washington last year, at the Motion Picture Association of America headquarters, mingled Christian ministers and conservative political commentators.

This narrowly targeted outreach has attracted accusations of rank exploitation.

“The heavy marketing of Gibson’s film to conservative evangelical Protestants strikes me as theologically perverse, if commercially smart,” complained Democratic Leadership Council policy director Ed Kilgore this week on National Review Online.

“These are people, for the most part, who don’t place much stock in the liturgical calendar, and the particular relevance of the Passion to the annual cycle of meditations about Christ.”

Whatever the motivation — genuine solidarity or sheer opportunism — the outreach is paying off. Enthusiasm for “The Passion” among churches is perhaps as high as it’s ever been for a Hollywood movie.

Already, there are specialty Bibles that include images from the movie. Locally, McLean Bible Church, which draws 7,000 worshippers on a typical weekend, is renting out theaters especially for its members to see the movie and bring nonbelieving friends and family.

The Dallas-based NeedHim Ministries, an evangelistic outreach organization, is anticipating such a high response to “The Passion” that it plans to promote its toll-free hotline, 800/NEEDHIM, as part of a national advertising campaign that will coincide with the movie’s Wednesday release.

Industry surveys suggest first-week box-office figures of $15 million to $30 million, which would be stellar for any movie costing $25 million.

Throughout all the teeth-gnashing and speculation over “The Passion,” it’s been assumed that Mel Gibson has enjoyed a free hand in bringing the film to market.

Yet, a Washington source connected to Mr. Gibson’s grass-roots campaign who’s been invited to three separate screenings of “The Passion” speculates that not every cineplex company was crazy about booking it.

“I think it’s more a matter of which theater chains would accept the movie, since it was not distributed or promoted through traditional channels,” the source says.

Says Mr. Dergarabedian, “If a pitch meeting took place describing ‘The Passion’ — with the religious story line, subtitles, the controversial handling of the subject matter and no major stars — there would be no way that any studio exec would expect the film to be a hit and would probably turn the project down flat.”

Hence Mr. Gibson’s decision to sink millions of his own into the production and his choice of the smallish Newmarket Films to distribute it.

“I believe ‘The Passion’ could be the most unexpected hit we’ve seen in years,” says Mr. Dergarabedian.

Come Wednesday, all this will be moot; “The Passion” will have gone public. At that point, there’s nothing more Mel Gibson can do. No more demographic buttons to push, no more vetted audiences to charm.

Supporters who have hotly anticipated it will finally get their chance to take it in, and detractors who have been lying in wait will get theirs too — even if they have to leave their downtown digs and trundle themselves to a mall in the provinces.

Opening in D.C. area

• Regal Ballston Common 12

671 N. Glebe Road, Arlington

• Loews Georgetown 14

3111 K St. NW

• UA Bethesda 10

7272 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda

• Loews Fairfax Square 8

8065 Leesburg Pike, Vienna

• Loews Wheaton Plaza 11

11160 Viers Mill Road, Wheaton

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