A kinder, gentler `Passion' coming

7-minute trim cuts most graphic parts

March 10, 2005|By Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ became the top grossing R-rated film ever with $611 million in worldwide box-office receipts. Now, Newmarket Films is rolling the dice on an unrated version.

Aimed at those who were kept away by the movie's graphic material, The Passion Recut is due out in 950 theaters tomorrow (including the AMC Columbia and R/C Eastpoint), in advance of the Easter holiday. Gibson had hoped that a seven-minute cut would bring him a PG-13 rating. But his Icon Productions was told by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in January that the film is still too intense for young people.

While R-rated films have gone out unrated on DVD, this is believed to be the first time that one has been re-released in theaters without a rating - a marketing move designed to distinguish it from the original.

"This can be tricky," conceded Newmarket President Bob Berney. "It's hard to know the commercial impact. ... We have to fight the perception that `unrated' means more graphic. The Recut release is admittedly experimental. Who knows whether people who've seen The Passion or bought the DVD will turn out? Realistically, the movie should play a few weeks beyond Easter. We think it will do some business, but nobody knows how much."

In Recut, Gibson excised some of the scourging scenes from the story - the tale of the last hours of Christ - as well as graphic images of the crucifixion. Different camera angles and long shots have been inserted. Rather than depicting the nails penetrating Christ's body, for example, the film has a shot of a hammer coming down.

The film's Web site (www.the passionrecut.com) posted a statement from Gibson, a portion of which is featured in the print ads: "By softening some of its more wrenching aspects, I hope to make my film and its message of love available to a wider audience."

John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said major studios are contractually prohibited by the MPAA from releasing unrated movies. The option is available to independent distributors such as Newmarket Films, but it is not without risk, he noted.

"Some theater chains will not play unrated movies," Fithian said. "And the companies that will are going to enforce this movie as an R rating - refusing to sell tickets to children under the age of 17 unless accompanied by a parent or guardian."

According to Berney, Recut lands somewhere between an R and a PG-13, for which parental guidance is suggested. While still unsuitable for young children, the tone and balance are more appropriate for teens and those who are a bit squeamish, he said.

In the United States, Recut will play in all the major markets - but not in Regal Theaters, the world's largest movie chain. Icon filed suit against Regal last summer, alleging that the company short-changed it on Passion box-office receipts. Last week, Regal settled the case for several million dollars, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Gibson's Icon has sent out checks to hundreds of faith-based organizations in the wake of the settlement, compensating them for a $500 fee Regal charged on top of its ticket prices for private screenings.

In a letter accompanying the checks, the director said that he was "shocked and disappointed" by the charge, of which Icon was never informed. Regal said that such fees - internally referred to as a "worship price" - are commonly charged to cover marketing and overhead costs. Icon estimates that Regal held 1,400 screenings.

Newmarket offered Recut to Regal nevertheless, but the company turned it down, Berney said. Regal could not be reached for comment.

A grass-roots evangelical campaign has again been employed for Recut, although substantially smaller in scale. E-mails have been sent to churches advising them of the new version. Group sales, which drove the original to blockbuster status, are expected, particularly over Easter week. Each time the holiday rolls around, Newmarket intends to re-release a version of The Passion - either the original or the recut version. DVD plans for Recut are not in place, but a home-video release is likely later this year or early next year. Whether bonus features, which were absent from the original, will be part of the package is yet to be determined.

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