Stores expecting a renewal of `Passion' on Tuesday

DVD, VHS releases should amass many more millions for director Mel Gibson

Film

August 29, 2004|By David Hiltbrand | David Hiltbrand,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

If, as the Bible says, it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, Mel Gibson is in for a very tough afterlife.

With The Passion of the Christ due out on DVD and VHS Tuesday, Gibson is poised to reap a second immense fortune from his controversial film about the final hours of Jesus.

"It's safe to say Gibson will reap the most money any one person ever has from a single movie," says Brandon Gray, president of the film-tracking firm boxofficemojo.com.

Since its theatrical release in February, the film, with Jim Caviezel in the title role, has earned at least $609 million worldwide.

Because Passion was essentially self-produced, Gibson's take has been estimated at more than $200 million. In light of that windfall, Forbes magazine recently declared him the world's most powerful celebrity.

Now, DVD sales are expected to boost Gibson's personal profits above $400 million.

It's a shockingly lucrative turn of events for a project that many people thought was folly.

No recent film has carried grimmer commercial prospects: a long, R-rated movie, full of unremitting brutality and suffering, set in ancient times, and focused on a religious figure. Just for good measure, throw in dialogue in two dead languages - Aramaic and Latin - necessitating subtitles.

Even Gibson, 48, a traditionalist Roman Catholic, termed his determination to get The Passion made "suicidal." In addition to directing and co-writing the film, the longtime matinee idol and action star was forced to put up $25 million himself, when several Hollywood studios balked at bankrolling it.

Then the Christian community rallied around the embattled film before its release on Ash Wednesday, encouraging the faithful to get out to see it early and often.

"The Passion brought people into theaters that hadn't been to a movie ever - or at least in a long time," says Steve Feldstein, senior vice president at Fox Home Entertainment, which is distributing the DVD.

That religious constituency is expected to supercharge sales.

"I'm sure that most of the evangelical churches in the country will buy at least one copy for their libraries," says Bob Waliszewski, entertainment specialist at Focus on the Family, an influential Christian ministry in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Fox has been actively preaching to the choir. "We've initiated outreach to churches and para-church organizations," Feldstein says. "There have been a variety of mailings and e-mail campaigns, much of it at a grassroots level."

In a unique promotion, Fox offered churches a preorder discount on bulk packs of 50 DVDs or 50 VHS tapes. For an additional fee, the packaging on each copy could be customized with the church's name, a quotation from Scripture, or some other personalized message.

"There will be an extraordinarily high number of sales in the box loads. That's something you don't normally see," says Scott Hettrick, editor-in-chief of DVD Exclusive, an industry publication. "This title is bringing in a lot of people that never converted from VHS to DVD. You're getting quite a new audience."

The suggested retail price is $29.98 for DVD, $24.98 for VHS. The initial release contains only the film with no bonus features.

"They're not talking about it, but my guess is that they'll issue a more elaborate collector's edition around Easter time," Hettrick says. "They had production crews shooting `making-of' footage."

Religious-oriented chain stores have jumped all over the release with special offers. The big retail outlets, such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy, have stocked up as well. Preliminary shipments of The Passion will total 15 million copies, Billboard magazine estimates.

On the day the DVD goes on sale, so will a new CD, Passion of the Christ: Songs. It contains offerings inspired by the film, from artists including Lauryn Hill, P.O.D., Brad Paisley with Sara Evans, and Kirk Franklin. The first single is "Relearn Love" from former Creed front man Scott Stapp.

Simultaneously, several companies are flooding the market with religious-themed DVDs. "Everybody is repackaging and re-releasing everything they have that's Christian-related or has `Passion' in the title," Hettrick observes.

Even South Park is getting into the act, with a DVD, The Passion of the Jew, which includes a cartoon portrait of Gibson in his underwear, cackling like Woody Woodpecker.

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