Sunday, February 15, 2004

Controversial film stirring emotions


Internet, churches spreading word about 'The Passion'

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] James Caviezel portrays Jesus in The Passion of The Christ.
(Marquis Films, Ltd.)
It was August when Jennifer Giroux and some old friends launched SeeThePassion.com, a Web site urging support for Mel Gibson's film about the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus.

Then, the Madeira woman feared The Passion of The Christ might never open in commercial theaters. No major studio would accept the film, with its grim, R-rated images of Jesus' death by torture, subtitled dialogue in ancient Aramaic and Latin, and critics warning it could encourage anti-Semitism.

Today, the movie is booked to debut Feb. 25 - Ash Wednesday - in more than 2,000 locations in North America, through art-house distributor Newmarket Films. Advance ticket sales are booming, industry researchers predict blockbuster results, and SeeThePassion.com has received more than 5 million "hits."

Much of that success is due to an enormous, unprecedented volunteer movement to sell the picture. Enlisted by Gibson at large private screenings of the unfinished film, Christian clergy and lay people have delivered a promotional push that has replaced a traditional advertising campaign worth millions.

Giroux, a mother of nine who with her husband owns The Catholic Shop in Madeira, says she and her friends raised money to buy radio ads encouraging listeners to ask local theaters to show the film. They did not foresee the phenomenon the still-unreleased movie has become.

"When I'm up answering e-mails at 1 and 2 in the morning sometimes, I wonder, 'What have I done?' " Giroux says.

ADVANCE TICKETS
Open Door Community Church in Erlanger is offering free tickets to a screening of The Passion of The Christ at 10 a.m. Feb. 29 at Great Escape 14 in Wilder. Call (859) 341-8850.

Advance tickets for showings beginning Feb. 25 can be purchased for these theaters:

Showcase Cinemas at Kenwood Towne Center, Cincinnati (Norwood), Erlanger, Western Hills, Eastgate, Springdale, Florence and Milford. www.nationalamusements.com. 699-1500 for information about all theaters.

Rave West Chester, www.movietickets.com, (513) 463-2316.

AMC 20 at Newport On The Levee, www.moviewatcher.com, (859) 261-8100.

Great Escape 14 in Wilder is expected to put tickets on sale this week at www.greatescapetheaters.com. (859) 442-0000.

Conflicts over contents landed the movie in headlines. Catholic and Jewish scholars, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, have argued that it may encourage anti-Semitism by recycling ancient stereotypes that hold Jews responsible for Jesus' murder, a position used to justify the violent oppression of Jews throughout history.

Defenders of the film insist it is not anti-Semitic and that it reflects true Christian beliefs. Some accuse the critics of trying to stop the movie from being seen.

Controversy aside, many Christians expect it to inspire believers and bring millions of new worshipers to the faith.

Pastor Barry Clardy of the 700-member House of Restoration Worship Center in Milford has booked a theater for his congregation and guests to see the movie. He saw the film at an advance screening for 5,000 religious leaders in Orlando and found it profoundly moving.

"Once this movie opens, it's not going to be something churches have to promote," he says. "Hollywood is going to be vastly surprised. Communities of faith are going to rise to the occasion."

The 'Blair Witch' effect

Marketing costs for a major film average $30 million. The Passion cost $25 million to make, all out of Gibson's pocket. Entertainment trade publication Variety reported that recent Nielsen NRG research surveys indicated the movie will open with $30 million. Those figures do not account for whatever boost the film receives from TV ads just beginning to appear, from a Newsweek cover featuring star Jim Caviezel, or from Gibson's interview with Diane Sawyer on a special edition of Primetime, airing at 10 p.m. Monday on ABC (WCPO Channel 9).

Reagan Sulewski, who analyzes the movie business for the Internet-based Box Office Prophets, cites The Blair Witch Project as another movie with limited commercial prospects that went on to huge success because grass-roots buzz fueled an appetite for it long before opening day. In both cases, he says, "People who have seen the film or believe in the project are doing the legwork.

"Word of mouth is the most valuable advertising, the cheapest and the hardest to get," he says. The Passion of The Christ is building enormous public awareness "because the church groups are basically selling it for them."

News about the film's contents doesn't hurt. "Just the fact the movie exists has become the story," Sulewski says. "Every time potential controversy is mentioned, that gets the movie out there."

"It's definitely seeing promotion you would not expect for a 2,000-screen release."

As for the movie's box-office destiny, Sulewski says: "It's definitely going to get over $100 million. Beyond that, it's really hard to predict. I think we're going to see a lot of those one-movie-a-year people come out." Fewer than 10 percent of movies released in any one year make $100 million or more in North America. Of all the films ever released in the United States, only 299 have reached the $100 million mark, according to the Internet Movie Database.

Many area congregations are buying out auditoriums and giving away free tickets, targeting people who don't belong to any church.

Harvest Pointe Christian Church in Batavia, a 50-member congregation, bought 300 tickets for an advance screening on Feb. 23 at AMC Newport.

"We've only been in existence for a year now, so this is a big adventure for us," church official James Carwell says. "We want to fill this theater with people who might not go see this movie if not for the fact that they're getting a free ticket."

The church will give away tickets on radio station WAKW-FM this week, and through its Web site, www.harvestpointecc.com.

Open Door Community Church in Erlanger canceled regular Sunday services for Feb. 29 and instead will host a free screening of The Passion at the Great Escape 14 in Wilder for about 300 members and unchurched guests.

"This is a bold move for us," says Pastor Jeremy Robinson. "But our members know a lot of people who aren't doing anything on Sunday mornings."

Them versus us

Many churches are using materials based on the movie for education and recruiting.

However, the Rev. Mendle Adams, pastor of St. Peter's United Church of Christ in Pleasant Ridge, was rebuffed when he tried to order Passion-related materials from the online religious supplier, Outreach.com

The company refused to fill his order because Adams identified himself as accepting of gay and lesbian church members. Company policy states it can refuse to do business with clients whose beliefs diverge from its own.

"Well, they can't keep me from talking about the movie. I'm encouraging my people to see it."

Christian advocacy for the movie has not escaped the controversy, either.

In a commentary written for newspaper op-ed pages, David Elcott, director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, worries that discussion about the movie already has become a case of "them-versus-us" rather than a debate.

"I understand that viewers may legitimately be moved when viewing the movie and its description of the gift of Jesus' death that redeems the world from sin," he writes. "But this teaching does not require that the world be divided between us and them, that ugly stereotypes be reintroduced or that those who challenge the movie are dupes of Satan."

A petition on SeeThePassion.com, which visitors are asked to sign to encourage showing of the movie, describes "enemies of the movie" as "enemies of Christian civilization."

"So many people have thanked me for saying that," Giroux says. The Anti-Defamation League is "interested in one thing, maligning the movie," she says. "I feel right now this is an anti-Christian thing."

Giroux says modern Christians can embrace the Bible without being anti-Semitic.

"Did the Jews conspire with the Romans ... to execute Jesus? Yes. Do we blame the Jews now? No," she says.

Jerusalem Prayer Team, a pro-Israel coalition of largely conservative Christians, have launched a Web site, www.melj.net, asking Gibson to add a postscript repudiating anti-Jewish sentiments.

More than 24,000 people have signed the site's letter stating, "We want to make it difficult, if not impossible, for bigots to use this precious movie for evil purposes." It asks forgiveness "for the Jewish blood that has been shed in the name of our Savior."

Web site founder and Dallas evangelist Mike Evans told the Los Angeles Times last week that he raised the issue with Gibson after seeing the unfinished movie in August.

He recounted saying to the filmmaker, "I don't want my savior to be used as a sword to injure Jewish people."

E-mail mmcgurk@enquirer.com




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