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.
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.
Although all of this-aimed at bringing out that all-important opening-weekend audience-may sound a bit heavy-handed, it's altogether typical for Hollywood. What's unique here is simply the degree to which the film is courting Christian audiences, a first for a mainstream Hollywood product.
And that's natural, considering the subject matter. It's "movie marketing 101," says Larry Ross, who was hired by Icon to deal with religious press for the film. "You start with your core audience."
But in the end, the movie has to stand on its own. On some level, the film needs to be separated from the controversy, from the marketing blitz, from the hype, and understood on its own terms.
The key to understanding The Passion is in understanding how personal a project this is for Mr. Gibson, and that what we see on screen is an extension of his own experience. "About 13 years ago," he told WORLD, "I came to a difficult point in my life, and meditating on Christ's sufferings, on His Passion, got me through it.
"Life is hard, and we all get wounded by it-I was no exception," Mr. Gibson continued. "I went to the wounds of Christ in order to cure my wounds. And when I did that, through reading, and studying, and meditating, and praying, I began to see in my own mind what He really went through. I began to understand it as I never had before, even though I had heard the story so many times. The way I envisioned the suffering of Christ got inside me and started to grow, and it reached a point where I just had to tell it, to get it out."
Co-screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald, himself a committed Catholic, echoed this in an interview with WORLD in Los Angeles: "From a screenwriter's point of view I have to say that I always, in this instance, thought that I should be listening more than proposing."
The film is not, and cannot, be all things to all people. It's not, for instance, a celluloid tract. The film's focus is dramatically limited, covering only the short period from Jesus' arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane to His death on the cross. While a few brief flashbacks to other scenes from Jesus' life are interspersed with the Passion narrative, Mr. Gibson doesn't allow himself the opportunity to delve into the completeness of Christ's work on earth. In other words, while The Passion may present a unique evangelism opportunity, it is lacking the contextualization to stand on its own as a presentation of the gospel message.
In some ways, this is actually one of the film's great strengths, and part of what separates it from other, less artistically successful gospel films (see review, next page).
None of the Gospel writers offers much detail about the torture and execution of Christ, so Mr. Gibson was forced to fill in the holes. Some of the most striking elements of the movie are the layers that Mr. Gibson adds to the Gospel accounts, interpreting and expanding upon themes already present. "I did an immense amount of reading," he told WORLD. "I consulted a huge number of theologians, scholars, priests, spiritual writers. I studied the Scriptures. I drank in all of that information and thought about it; I meditated on it, and gradually the film took shape in my mind.
"The film is faithful to the Gospels, but I had to fill in a lot of detail, and that's where my own meditation came into play. I also found that a lot of experts disagreed about historical details-like the way Jesus would have carried His cross, or whether the nails went through the palms of His hands or His wrists, or whether Pilate would have spoken Aramaic. Since the experts canceled each other out, I was thrown back on my own resources to weigh the different arguments and decide for myself."
Mr. Gibson was also self-consciously single-minded about the focus of his film. Audiences may fault him for what he chose not to include (or emphasize) in the film, but in the end these elements were extraneous to the story that Mr. Gibson wanted to tell: "The movie isn't about the Resurrection; it's about the Passion, the suffering of the Christ. You need to see the Resurrection [in the final scene], because that shows that Christ was who He claimed to be. It also demonstrates that love is stronger than death, which is why Jesus was able to endure so much suffering without giving in to despair or revenge. But it's the Passion, the suffering that really matters. My wounds were healed by His wounds; I had to tell the story of those wounds."
What is the movie capable of accomplishing? "One of the messages is the question itself-what is the truth?" says Maia Morgenstern, a non-Christian who plays Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the film. "It asks the question with no answer but it will be good enough if we ask ourselves, what is the truth? And it will be good enough if we think about it. The film is not a lecture, it's pure art."
Some may dispute that last claim-film and art are complicated concepts, especially when they meet-but the film's value is truly in provocatively posing the question, "Who is Jesus, and why did He suffer so?" Mr. Gibson has his own answer, and his brutal depiction of Christ's death will demand that others-perhaps even those now making the most noise about the film-quietly formulate their own.