A ‘Passion’ Push

Glenn Barth of the Mission America Coalition, a Christian evangelical ministry, has hardly seen anything like it. “My phone is ringing pretty much from the minute I come into the office,” said Barth, who is based in Minneapolis. When the regular lines are busy, “people find me on my cell phone and call me during lunch.”

The calls jamming Barth’s phones are all about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” And the pastors, church leaders and campus evangelists on the line all want to know the same thing: How can they plug into outreach efforts for the film, which is scheduled to open nationwide on 2,000 screens Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday?

“There’s a buzz in the Christian community across the country about this film that I haven’t seen about many events,” said Barth, who is Mission America’s national facilitator for city and community ministries.

The “buzz,” of course, is part of a larger controversy over “The Passion of the Christ,” a graphic retelling of the last hours of Jesus’ life that has already aroused fervor and outrage.

Its detractors, including some key Jewish leaders and Christian scholars, have charged that the film will potentially fan anti-Semitism in its depiction of Jews as “Christ-killers.” (Gibson denies his film is anti-Semitic; “The Passion” is “meant to inspire, not offend,” he has said.)

Opponents have also blasted Gibson – who invested $25 million of his own money to make “The Passion” – and his Icon Productions for limiting months of preview screenings largely to church groups and other audiences likely to be positive in their response.

“I must say, it was a brilliant strategy to bypass and exclude anyone that might be a critic,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center (and, as it happens, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker). “His marketing was, he wanted a choir to say, ‘Amen.'”

But to many Christians, the choir has long been ready and waiting for just such an “amen” call. Gibson, himself a traditionalist Catholic, has tapped into a network of faith-based marketing and entertainment businesses and ministries whose Christian-oriented pop songs, movies, videos, books, Internet sites and databases have been largely ignored by the mainstream media. Now they’ve been joined by a high-voltage film impossible to ignore.

“Large portions of the Christian community think the media is very unfair to Christianity,” said Ben Witherington III, a Bible scholar who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky. “Whenever they perceive some Christian being persecuted, the Christian community gets behind the underdog.”

A subtitled, religious film with no major stars and characters who speak in two ancient languages, Latin and Aramaic, “The Passion” has aimed from the start at the Christian market as a crucial constituency.

“Every film has to find its core audience,” said Paul Lauer, Icon’s marketing strategist for “The Passion.” “And being a film about the story of Jesus, the natural core audience is going to be those who believe and embrace that story. So it wasn’t rocket science to know we had to focus at least the first part of our efforts on the faith community.”

Lauer declined to discuss this campaign in detail. “There’s a certain proprietary element to it,” he said. “We have spent a great deal of time creating a new system that sidesteps the normal Hollywood approach to marketing a film.”

Definitely not part of Hollywood, for instance, is the OnCore Group, a Tulsa, Okla., company that does marketing and distribution for faith- based projects. “We’re one of about 15 different organizations that make up the marketing team,” said Tim Abare, OnCore’s chief executive. OnCore helps distribute free promotional materials for the film and contacts interested church or “para-church” groups, such as Focus on the Family, or the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, with resource information “to help them spread the good word for the movie,” Abare said.

Spreading the “good word” is often akin to spreading the Word, as churches and ministries adopt the movie as an evangelical tool. In December, for instance, Christian leaders attended a special screening in California, organized by Mission America, at which Gibson addressed them. (Gibson has often appeared at such events for a post-screening Q & A.) “Mel said he wanted this to be an evangelistic opportunity for the church,” Mission America’s Glenn Barth said. “He knows we are a large coalition that can help to do that. Because it fulfills our mission, we are helping.”

Some of that help is coming via 300 “Passion summit meetings,” each attended by 200 to 500 religious leaders in churches across the country. Summit participants may get advice on anything from accessing “Passion”-related Web sites and products (both free and for purchase), to buying up an entire theater screening in advance.

How effective are these methods? In Plano, Texas, for example, two members of a large Baptist church bought out a 20-screen multiplex so 6,000 people could watch the film’s premiere. The interdenominational American Bible Society, in Manhattan, has purchased 10,000 tickets to distribute for free. And among Catholic groups, the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has bought several thousand tickets, to be resold at a subsidized cost of $5 each.

Support has come, too, on TV. The Catholic network EWTN last month aired an exclusive interview with Gibson. And the family-oriented PAX network will broadcast an Icon-produced documentary about the making of “The Passion” on Feb. 22 and 24. “I just wanted to make sure I was the one doing it at the height of the issue, which was a few days before” the opening, said PAX chairman Lowell “Bud” Paxson.

As that opening date gets closer, the film’s marketing strategy is broadening. Gibson may have been testing the waters in December when “The Passion” was screened – and Gibson hosted a Q & A – before some 250 surprised film geeks at the Butt-Numb-A-Thon festival in Austin, Texas. Neither the screening nor Gibson had been announced in advance.

“I knew there was a significance beyond the room – that it would be the first nonhand-picked audience,” said festival organizer Harry Knowles, the self-described “head geek” whose Internet site, Aintit cool.com, teemed with “Passion” chat after the festival. (Festival reaction to the film? Mostly, Knowles said, his religiously “smorgasbord” audience “loved it.”)

A key mainstream move comes next Monday, when Gibson talks about “The Passion” with Diane Sawyer in a special edition of ABC’s “Primetime.” According to Icon’s Lauer, the interview is part of the bigger picture.

“We never intended to market this thing only to the faith community,” he said. “That was the natural first target. But this is a film for all people.”

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