Pop Culture

Christians aid marketing of ‘Passion’

Arch Bonnema was so moved by Mel Gibson’s controversial film “The Passion of The Christ,” he bought $42,000 worth of tickets so more people could see it.

“It had a profound impact on my life,” said Bonnema, a Southern Baptist who runs a financial services firm near Dallas and saw a preview of the film. He gave away 6,000 “Passion” tickets for opening day on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25.

“The way the movie industry works is, the more people see a film at the beginning, the longer the film stays around.”

A potent mix of religion and money looks set to make “Passion” a box-office smash, despite concerns the film could foment anti-Semitism. Gibson, who spent $25 million of his own fortune to make the film, is relying on evangelical churches to market it, and the strategy appears to be working wonders.

Except for Gibson’s star power, the movie is hardly a typical Hollywood blockbuster — it’s a low-budget film with no well-known actors and the dialogue is in Latin and Aramaic.

The film will open on some 2,000 screens — similar to what a major studio release would receive and almost unheard of for what is, in effect, an independent film.

Instead of the usual barrage of billboards and television advertisements, Gibson invited thousands of religious leaders to watch screenings and spread the word about his film, which looks at the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ.

Critics contend the movie unfairly blames Jews for Jesus’s death. Gibson, who belongs to an ultra-conservative sect of the Catholic church, has said he was surprised by the outcry.

Bigger than ‘Harry Potter’?The film has touched a nerve in the U.S. evangelical Christian community, which boasts millions of members and spending power of billions of dollars. It is a group that can swing presidential elections, turn obscure books into overnight best-sellers and quite possibly make “Passion” a blockbuster.

Hundreds of churches are selling advance tickets, and promoting the film from the pulpit. Theaters from Texas to Montana have already sold out for opening day.

At Arch Bonnema’s Prestonwood Baptist Church near Dallas, which has 22,000 members and holds services in a huge building that resembles a sports arena, the pastor preaches on the power of “Passion” and has urged congregants to see the movie — despite an “R” rating for graphic violence.

The church is distributing half of the tickets Bonnema bought. For those who didn’t receive freebies, the church’s Web site has details on where to buy them.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Richard King, a spokesman for theater chain AMC Entertainment Inc., noting that even mega-hits such as “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” did not see this much early demand.

King said the company had tripled its group ticket sales staff to keep up with demand, and it was only accepting requests from groups of 25 or more people. Individual and smaller group tickets will go on sale closer to opening day.

Gibson is not the first movie maker to tap into the church marketing machine. Cloud 10 Productions’ movies based on the popular “Left Behind” series of Christian books helped pioneer church-based marketing.

“If you get the Christian community behind your film and supporting it, they’re very strong at word-of-mouth and grass-roots (marketing), and bringing friends to the theater,” said Melisa Richter who runs Richter Strategic Communications and was formerly Cloud 10’s public relations manager.

“Passion” has even scored prime advertising on the hood of a NASCAR race car, just in time for Sunday’s Daytona 500, which draws a television audience of about 11 million. Interstate Batteries Chairman Norm Miller said a friend asked him to paint the ad on his company-sponsored race car.

It remains to be seen if demand for tickets will hold up after the vital first weekend. Some experts said the violence may turn off viewers. But if Bonnema’s friends are any indication, ticket demand will easily outstrip opening-day supply.

Bonnema e-mailed a handful of friends to see if they knew anyone who wanted some of his 6,000 tickets. “In three days, I had 23,000 requests,” he said.

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