As “The Passion of the Christ” races towards $400 million at the North American box office, Mel Gibson is reaping the benefits of breaking the Ten Commandments — Hollywood’s Ten Commandments of movie marketing and distribution.
With “Braveheart” in 1995 Gibson did things conventionally and let Paramount and others finance the $72 million production, which went on to gross about $202 million worldwide while winning five Oscars, including a pair for him — best picture and director.
By following his own path now with “Passion,” Gibson orchestrated a success story that could serve as a case study for film schools for years to come. Beyond that, Gibson should profit for years to come since as a period piece costume drama “Passion” can enjoy an Easter afterlife in theaters from now till doomsday.
If “Passion” winds up with somewhere between $1 billion and $1.2 billion worldwide this time around, it’s possible that well planned reissues down the road could send it sailing past the $1.8 billion haul of all-time champ “Titanic.”
In breaking or bending so many of Hollywood’s basic rules, Gibson showed considerable courage that’s paid off big-time. Given reports of how distributors around town turned down the chance to release “Passion,” it’s clear that nobody — including Gibson himself — saw this as being the moneymaker it’s become.
Here’s a quick look at the Ten Commandments Gibson opted not to obey and how not doing so helped turn “Passion” into a blockbuster.
1. Thou shalt use other people's moneyTraditionally Hollywood considers anyone who puts his own money into financing a movie to be a sucker. Although Hollywood superstars and high profile filmmakers often talk about pet projects they’d love to bring to the screen, they almost never dip into their own bank accounts to make them.
In Gibson’s case, his personal passion for “Passion” was so great and apparently so unshared by the Hollywood community that there was no other way this film would have gotten made other than with his own money. While it’s unclear whether the $30 million to make “Passion” came from Gibson’s personal bank account or from his and Bruce Davey’s Icon Productions, what is clear is that the film’s box office bonanza will give Gibson a heavenly return on his investment.
2. Thou shalt let a good film speak for itself by screening it early for media
Gibson recognized from the get-go that screening “Passion” early wasn’t the way to go. If creating controversy was the key to building awareness of the film, letting the media have an early look at it couldn’t possibly help. The less people know about something the greater the controversy over it is likely to be. By refusing to show “Passion” to the groups that were insisting on seeing it, Gibson kept everybody riled up enough to provide fuel for the media frenzy over whether “Passion” is or isn’t anti-Semitic.
Instead of generating dull television reports or newspaper articles with one set of opinions balancing another set of opinions about the film and its message, the resulting media coverage focused on how incensed people were that Gibson wouldn’t let them have an early look at his movie. The more people were told they couldn’t see it, the more they wanted to see it.
3. Thou shalt keep TV advertising at heart of film's marketing campaignNetwork television advertising may be more expensive than ever and may deliver less audience than it used to, but Hollywood marketers still love it and plan their media campaigns around it. When major studios commit $25 million or more to launching a movie, network TV gets the lion’s share of that money. In the case of “Passion,” Gibson didn’t have that kind of money to spend on marketing nor did he choose to pour it down the network drain.
The grassroots marketing effort that Gibson undertook for “Passion” initially on his own and later through Newmarket Films was a lean one that relied on reaching the film’s core audience of Christian moviegoers and potential moviegoers by getting local church groups to promote seeing the film.
4. Thou shalt hold press junkets to generate publicity
Gibson’s done so many press junkets that he, of all people, must know how ineffective they really are. By bringing together in New York or L.A. the usual crowd of jaded journalists from across the country and turning them loose for four or five minutes apiece on the film’s stars, the resulting coverage is as bland and uniform as you could possibly generate. A press junket for “Passion” would have had Gibson sitting in a hotel room chair with a poster for the film on an easel beside him and a plant on a table behind him looking like it was growing out of his head. Whatever answers Gibson might have given to the typically inane questions that get asked at such junkets, they would not have driven people to see his movie the way television reports about the controversy raging over the then unseen film did.
5. Thou shalt honor they superstars by paying them big bucks
Whatever Gibson paid Jim Caviezel to star in “Passion” has got to be a lot less than Hollywood typically pays Gibson to star in a movie. Gibson didn’t turn to superstar casting to make his own movie, however, because he knew high profile stars weren’t the answer for this picture.
If Gibson, for instance, had cast himself to play Christ, moviegoers would have sat there and instead of being drawn into the film they’d have been thinking about how that’s Mel Gibson under all that bloody body makeup. Bottom line, by skipping star casting Gibson was able to bring his film in for around $30 million. Add one superstar to that budget and you’d wind up with around $60 million, figuring a $25 million salary and another $5 million in related costs for the entourage and perks that accompany big stars these days.
6. Thou shalt avoid R ratings, subtitles, foreign languages, graphic violence
With nearly $270 million in grosses already under its belt, “Passion” is poised to become the biggest R rated film ever this weekend. That record will fall as soon as “Passion” passes $281.6 million, which “The Matrix Reloaded” did domestically last year.
The conventional wisdom in Hollywood has for years been that R ratings aren’t so great because they serve to limit a film’s audience by excluding people under the age of 17 (unless they’re accompanied by a parent or guardian). Gibson clearly rejected the idea of writing and filming “Passion” so that it would land a PG-13 rating. That just wasn’t going to be the movie he wanted to make and, to his credit, he refused to compromise. The film is said to be attracting a new audience demographic of young males who happen to love onscreen blood and gore and are attracted to violent images.
7. Thou shalt screen your film at festivals to attract a strong distributor
Gibson was smart to resist any temptations to unveil “Passion” at a major film festival. As a superstar long associated with the world of big-budget mainstream Hollywood movies, he’d have been in the wrong world at Sundance. With it having been quite difficult for “Passion” to achieve theatrical distribution in France, it’s hard to believe it would have been the kind of film that would have been embraced at Cannes. It’s hard to picture acquisitions executives for all those scrappy, studio-owned “independents” rushing up the aisle after viewing 10 minutes of the film to corner Gibson in the lobby and make him a distribution offer he couldn’t refuse.
8. Thou shalt rely on a New York/L.A. release to get word of mouth going
If Gibson had gotten a studio distribution deal the likelihood is he would have been pressured into a platform release of “Passion” at a handful of theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Hollywood believes you get word of mouth going by starting in a couple of theaters and letting influential critics and the film’s initial audiences spread the word. In the case of “Passion,” the kind of buzz that would have been generated would almost certainly have been the wrong kind.
9. Thou shalt covet promotional partnersAs important as Hollywood thinks fast food and other tie-in promotional campaigns are, they were clearly unsuitable for a film like “Passion.” How much they actually contribute to the success of mainstream releases is open for debate, as well.
10. Thou shalt worship idols of Wall Street to raise money for your own major studio
Perhaps the greatest temptation that Gibson appears to have resisted is the one to springboard off a film’s success by tapping Wall Street for the money to make more films through one’s own major studio. The dream of starting your own studio and achieving parity with the established majors is one that’s seduced other successful filmmakers before.
Gibson, however, apparently has the best of both worlds. With his investment in “Passion” having paid off, he can now finance the production and marketing of any similar scale movie he ever wants to make. By doing so, he’ll once again be the sole owner of his movie. If he can get lightning to strike again at the box office, he can take in another ton of money --like the $350 million to $500 million in profits “Passion” seems likely to bring him -- and have the satisfaction of having done it on his own terms.