- 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.

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