- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

For producer Wyck Godfrey, “The Nativity Story” started innocently enough. “There’s only one approach to a movie if you’re trying to tell the story of Mary and Joseph,” Mr. Godfrey says of the PG-rated drama. “We wanted to flesh out Mary and Joseph’s life and show people the faith it took to go along with God’s will for them.” But apparently the will of the film’s marketing campaign lay elsewhere. In November, the film’s distributor, New Line Cinema, was dropped as a sponsor of a Chicago Christmas festival because organizers feared an ad for the film might offend non-Christians. After this, New Line tried a different marketing strategy: Release a trailer depicting newspaper clippings screaming headlines like “Christmas Under Siege” and “Seattle’s Airport Removes Christmas Trees.” Cut to the evocative music, earnest biblical story line and pleading eyes of Oscar-nominated star Keisha Castle-Hughes. Introduce the new movie slogan — “This Year, Stand Up for Christmas.” Sex may sell, but so does controversy. In an age-old promotion move, New Line is playing on sentiments and hot emotions — grounded, in this case, in religious faith — to help resurrect its film, which has grossed roughly $25 million domestically since it opened on Dec. 1. “When controversy like that occurs, it certainly does raise the profile of the movie and raises the profile of the issue,” says Mike Thompson, senior vice president of CRC Public Relations, which has marketed films like “The Passion of the Christ” and “World Trade Center” as well as “The Nativity Story.” And while Mr. Thompson says the marketing does not blemish the biblical bottom line of the movie, Mr. Godfrey acknowledges he is “ambivalent” about aligning “The Nativity Story” with a cause. “People do start to hold this up as an antidote for the holiday season,” Mr. Godfrey said. “Now people are trying to get behind the movie and have it be a poster child for the Christian marketplace.” “The Nativity Story” has found its perfect foil in “Black Christmas,” a remake of the 1974 teen horror film of the same name that opens Christmas Day. It is distributed under the aegis of Dimension Films and brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein. The brothers, of course, released Michael Moore’s notoriously polarizing documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” on their own in 2004, after their then-corporate parent, Walt Disney Co., got cold feet. The Weinstein brothers rank right up there with Mr. Moore and Mel Gibson in terms of their ability to spin bad press into box-office gold. Several Christian organizations have called for a boycott of “Black Christmas,” saying the slasher film is blasphemous and must not open on the holiday. Studio execs responded with a trailer challenging audiences to “prepare for the ultimate slay ride.” One party who is speaking out against “Black Christmas” is Jennifer Giroux, founder and president of the “Operation: Just Say Merry Christmas” campaign that encourages Christians not to mince words this holiday, er, Christmas season. Mrs. Giroux was one of the most vocal defenders of Mr. Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” the film that wrote the book on converting controversy into grosses. Although she has not been as fervent about “Black Christmas,” her comments made their way onto the news wires, instantly turning up the heat around the horror movie. In her campaign, Mrs. Giroux identifies several “enemies of Christmas,” ranging in degree from those who don’t display Christmas decorations to those who are “just completely opposed to religion altogether.” “Black Christmas,” a horror movie that stages murders to “Silent Night” and desecrates Christmas cookies by substituting human flesh for dough, falls squarely into enemy territory. “I can only speak to the trailer, but I was unbelievably horrified by it,” Mrs. Giroux said. “What really concerns me is that ‘Black Christmas’ is taking the good from something like ‘Silent Night’ and aligning it with a murderous movie that borders on the demonic.” But Mrs. Giroux’s outrage may be just what’s needed to turn what she sees as a “deliberate insult to Christians” into a box-office hit. Blogs and movie chat groups are now overflowing with delighted quotes from zealous fans determined to see “Black Christmas” just to spite “those crazy Catholics” and “religious conservatives.” On a horrordvds.com forum, a fan writes: “I will support this film for sure now.” Another says: “I’m there on opening day with my ‘Black Christmas’ T-shirt on.” The moderator sums up: “Just another marketing tool that is working perfectly in Dimension’s favor. Really, such faux controversy is just part and parcel with the whole ad approach for any new horror movies these days.” The polemical ping-pong between supporters of family values and devotees of hedonistic horror may help fill the stockings of both “Nativity” and “Black” this Christmas. The controversies impel the core audiences of both films to show the flag for “their film” — in politics they call that firing up the base — and extends awareness of the films beyond those target audiences. Mr. Godfrey says that although he’s somewhat uneasy about aligning movies like “Nativity Story” and “Black Christmas” with controversy and political causes, the ploy may be necessary in a saturated film market. “There’s a lot of entertainment, and you have to figure out a way to cut through the clutter,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s just a way to sell sometimes.”

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