Hoping to renew fervor for `Passion'

Distributor of DVD quietly promoted it to church groups

September 01, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl and Frank Langfitt | Stephen Kiehl and Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

Some 15 million copies of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ went on sale yesterday, backed by a quiet but extensive marketing campaign aimed at the evangelical Christian community that made the movie an unexpected blockbuster in theaters this year.

Before yesterday's release, the film's distributor mailed promotional materials to 260,000 churches across the country and sent 6 million e-mails to targeted consumers. Also, 10,000 film lithographs were sent to Christian radio stations to be given away in dial-in contests.

Yet the DVD rollout of a film that made $370 million in theaters this year did not include many of the traditional promotional gimmicks used for blockbusters - no toy giveaways, no tie-ins with food or beverage companies, no big advertising campaign.

"We're a major studio and our natural inclination is a scream-from-the-rooftops hype machine, but because this film means so many things to so many different people, we had to respect that and temper our activities," said Steven Feldstein, a senior vice president for Fox Home Entertainment, which is distributing the DVD.

Nonetheless, Feldstein expects The Passion of the Christ to perform just as well on DVD as it did in theaters, where it is the second-highest grossing film of the year. The DVD has been the No. 1 seller on Amazon.com for weeks, thanks to pre-ordering, and some churches are buying the film at a discount in batches of 50.

"The movie is a phenomenon unto itself. There's never been anything like it," Feldstein said. "Let's not forget it's a $370 million blockbuster. The question becomes: How high is up?"

Some industry analysts have said the DVD may run into trouble because its graphic depiction of the crucifixion may be more than some parents want to bring home to their children, and because the religious and conservative communities are not traditionally large consumers of DVDs.

Yesterday, several evangelical ministers in Maryland said they had not been targeted by the Passion's marketing campaign, but had heard about it. They predicted that some of their congregants would buy The Passion but doubted the movie would rack up DVD sales comparable to the film's box office performance.

For one thing, it is not the kind of movie viewers - Christian or not - are likely to watch over and over again, they said. Even some fans of the movie, which recounts the final hours of Christ's life, were troubled by the violence, which includes hunks of flesh being ripped from Jesus' back with a cat o' nine tails.

"I really didn't want to see it again," said the Rev. Dan Crow, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Columbia, who attended a screening with 160 of his congregants when the movie opened in February. "I thought it was painful."

Crow said he probably would buy a copy on DVD, but more so that he could study scenes out of spiritual interest or to get tips on developing costumes for church pageants. Crow, a film buff with a collection of more than 50 DVDs, says he repeatedly watches feel-good films, such as the Cinderella basketball tale Hoosiers, and another Cinderella story, Pretty Woman.

The Passion, on the other hand, is more like Schindler's List, Crow said, a profound, but emotionally draining film that requires time between viewings.

"I honestly wondered who would buy it," said Crow, referring to The Passion. Crow said the DVD's success may hinge on whether influential leaders in the evangelical world, such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell or James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, encourage people to buy it.

The Rev. George W. Raduano, senior pastor of Trinity Assembly of God Church in Lutherville, said he thought many of his congregants would buy the DVD for their collections or as gifts for friends. He expected some would use it to teach children about Christ's final hours, using the fast-forward button to skip over the gory scenes - of which there are many.

When The Passion opened in theaters, there were predictions that it would become an unprecedented tool for evangelization, but polls and anecdotal evidence suggest that has not been the case. A survey released in July by the Barna Group, a marketing research firm that focuses on cultural trends and the Christian church, found that less than one-tenth of one percent who saw the film said they had made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus as their savior in reaction to the movie.

The Passion DVD does not include any of the bonus features now expected by consumers - such as a director's commentary or deleted scenes. But industry experts expect the film to have a long shelf life - into the holiday season - and to emerge as one of the year's top sellers.

"Expectations are very high," said Kurt Indvik, editor in chief of Video Store Magazine, a weekly trade publication. "But it's a different product from a lot of other blockbusters. Everybody is wondering what the, for lack of a better word, church effect will be because they've done extensive marketing to churches and church groups."

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