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GRAPHIC BY DESIGN

Get past all the controversy and hype, and the brutal film The Passion of the Christ turns out to be a very personal project of Mel Gibson's, reflecting his experience. "My wounds were healed by His wounds," he tells WORLD. "I had to tell the story of those wounds"

Issue: "Mel Gibson's passion," Feb. 28, 2004

FOR 8:30 ON A SATURDAY morning, there were a surprising number of alert eyes in Felix Auditorium at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California. Two thousand tickets had been made available on campus for a special screening of The Passion of the Christ, with little to no advance notice, just days before the Feb. 7 event. The tickets sold out almost immediately. Mel Gibson himself would be there, sitting down with author Lee Strobel for an interview that would be broadcast live to churches around the country.

All told, around 3,800 people packed the auditorium when the doors closed. While Scripture verses flashed overhead, praise music played over the loudspeakers. Event staff and security swarmed the auditorium, both outside and in, fueling the excitement. During the wait for Mr. Gibson, one audience member started a stadium-style wave, jogging along the base of the bleachers urging students to throw their arms in the air.

Now, contrast this scene with that of the auditorium after the film concluded several hours later. The once-boisterous audience was reduced to absolute silence. After a few moments came a weak attempt at polite applause. Then, again, silence, except for shuffling feet and creaking bleachers as a few people started to leave their seats and head for the exits. For the most part, not even the sound of hushed conversation could be heard as the audience slowly filed out.

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It's hard to imagine another scenario in which an audience this large, made up primarily of exuberant college students, could be so dramatically quieted. It's certainly hard to imagine another film having the same effect.

The national buildup to the film is following a similar pattern: A lot of controversy and a lot of hype leading up to a film that may leave the watching world speechless. And it looks like it will be a large watching world.

Heading into the home stretch to the film's Feb. 25 theatrical release, the numbers look good. Very good. The film industry magazine Variety reports that Nielsen NRG ratings predict an opening weekend gross of $15 million to $30 million, and that audience awareness is tracking far higher than other upcoming theatrical releases-despite the fact that most of these have employed much more extensive mainstream marketing campaigns. (Variety reported that "not a single television ad has aired ... two weeks before [the film's] release.")

The Passion will receive the widest-ever release for a film with subtitles, appearing in 2,800 theaters nationwide. Advance ticket sales have also been an indicator of widespread audience anticipation. Lately, nearly half of online ticket seller Fandango's sales have been advance tickets for The Passion. Not bad for a $25 million film that couldn't find a high-end distributor.

To a large extent, audience awareness is the result of months of nonstop press coverage. Charges that the film is anti-Semitic have dominated this coverage, but other issues have cropped up as well, from Mr. Gibson's conservative religious convictions to a dispute over the pope's alleged reaction to a screening of the film.

Through all of this, Mr. Gibson himself has come under close public scrutiny and frequent personal attacks. In an e-mail interview, WORLD asked him whether he was surprised by the level of controversy he and the film have generated. "I expected some, but I wasn't expecting it to get so personal," he said. "It's been a real eye-opener."

Then one of the biggest stars in Hollywood began using language that wouldn't have sounded out of place at a Sunday evening Bible study. "I have handled it by not letting it thwart this project, and by praying," he said. "My prayer life has grown a lot as a result of it. I pray for the people who are upset. I sincerely believe that their suspicions are wrong. This movie will bring people closer together, not incite violence and hatred. That was our experience in making it, and that has been the experience of the people who have seen it so far."

Icon (Mr. Gibson's production company) hasn't used high-profile marketing efforts, but has taken a "grassroots" approach to marketing the film, focusing on a large, and largely untapped, audience: church members.

The unprecedented merging of church and commerce started with various special screenings for Christian organizations and church leaders, and has become a full-scale industry. Outreach, Inc. (one of the Christian marketing firms hired to promote the film), for instance, offers a wide array of tie-in materials and resources on a website it developed for the film. Calling the movie "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years," the company does everything from listing community outreach ideas and suggesting a "timeline" for church activities leading up to the film's release to offering posters, door hangers, and even a "Passion-themed Scripture" (a New Testament that features images from the movie interspersed with the text) published by the International Bible Society.

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