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Marketing ‘The Passion of the Christ’

None of the major studios wanted to touch "The Passion of the Christ" when Mel Gibson first proposed the idea. Now, many of them probably wish they had.
/ Source: CNBC

None of the major studios wanted to touch "The Passion of the Christ" when Mel Gibson first proposed the idea. Now, many of them probably wish they had. Word of mouth on the movie has spread like, well, the gospel. And it's drawing flocks of moviegoers into theaters. Part of that is due to a marketing campaign unlike anything Hollywood has ever seen.

A year ago, Hollywood snickered at Mel Gibson's pet project -- a religious themed movie with subtitles and no big-name stars -- a surefire bomb, some said.

But as some 4,000 prints of "The Passion of the Christ" unspool in about 3,000 theaters, no one is laughing anymore.

"The advance tracking the studios are looking at suggest that it's going to do an opening five days of $35 million to $50 million," The Hollywood Reporter's Greg Kilday said. "Those are major numbers as far as Hollywood is concerned."

Gibson bypassed the major studios to make "The Passion," financing the $25 million film himself. He also shunned Hollywood's traditional publicity machine to market the film, relying instead on churches and religious leaders.

"A lot of church leaders ... went out and told their congregations to see the film -- they actually booked tickets themselves," Kilday said. "Some theaters have ... sold out their opening days to church affiliated groups, so we really haven't seen this kind of grass roots campaign take off like this before."

Many Christian groups are using the film to promote themselves. One religious Web site calls it "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years."

Christian media agency faithHighway partnered with Gibson's company to produce customized commercials for individual churches using clips from the film.

"We have had over 400 pastors that have come aboard on this opportunity in less than four weeks, and if you look at that type of count, that is about six times our normal traffic in terms of people wanting to get involved with using the media to reach out, so it's been tremendous," faithHighway President Shane Harwell said.

A wave of "Passion" merchandise started heading toward stores before the Ash Wednesday opening. The film's logo even sped around the track on Bobby LaBonte's race car at the recent Daytona 500.

"We have what looks like an unholy alliance between the secular entertainment industry and these faith-based efforts, as though Hollywood has taken advantage of the churches," said Pam Scholder Ellen of Georgia State University. "And I'm wondering if the churches, the Christian churches, didn't take advantage of Hollywood."

Criticism of the film's relentless violence and of its depiction of Jews has only generated additional publicity for the film. And while it is clear the faithful will congregate to see "The Passion," the question in Hollywood is "will everyone else show up, too?"