Unlearned lessons from 'The Passion'

Posted: May 12, 2004 12:00 AM

It's been a couple of months since Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" was released. The pre-release prediction from much of Hollywood was that no one wanted to see a religious picture and the film was sure to tank, costing Gibson his personal investment and inflaming anti-Semitic passions around the world.

When the film set a record for the biggest grossing midweek release in film history and did not spark anti-Semitism, the revealed wisdom in Hollywood was that it wouldn't last.

When it did last and, in fact, is still making gobs of money and setting records around the world, Hollywood, whose god is money, reverted to type, wondering if there were similar subjects that might appeal to a religious audience. We now know that Hollywood - or at least the brains at MGM - learned nothing from "The Passion" or about the yearnings for inspiring entertainment held by audiences that have flocked to see it.

The New York Times reports (May 6 in a story by Sharon Waxman) that MGM is currently screening a film titled "Saved!" The movie is proving "difficult to market," and the president of MGM worldwide marketing, Peter Adee, can't figure out why.

If you are a Christian, or at least mindful of why "The Passion" is a hit, you will immediately understand why "Saved!" will flop with MGM's target audience, which the studio says are the legions that flocked to Gibson's film.

"Saved!" - opening May 28 in selected cities - stars Mandy Moore and Macaulay Culkin, whose character is confined to a wheelchair. The two are siblings and attend a Maryland Christian high school "where 'Jesus loves you' is a mantra - and an order" (whatever that means). A giant cutout of Jesus dominates the campus (I've been to many such schools and have never seen a Jesus cutout). Pastor Skip, played by Martin Donovan, is the school's spiritual leader, described as handsome and hip.

Here's where it really gets good (or, in this case, bad). Jena Malone plays a teenager who gets pregnant while attempting to cure her boyfriend of his homosexuality. Her mother is a widow played by Mary-Louise Parker. She is "trying to be right with God but has an affair with Pastor Skip."

A gay audience invited to a screening reportedly "loved it." Religious leaders were said to have "mixed opinions."

Maybe this is supposed to be a comedy, but if, as MGM says, it is designed to reach the same audience that paid around $10 per ticket to see "The Passion of the Christ," MGM is not getting it and won't see anything approaching the revenues from Gibson's hit film.

"The Passion" speaks reverently about the central figure of the Christian faith. "Saved!" appears to mock Him, or at least satirize His followers, portraying them as hypocrites and superficial dunderheads, which is how most of Hollywood sees Christians. "The Passion" was about overcoming sin and evil. The plot for "Saved!" is about submitting to sin and evil.

What is MGM thinking? Does it believe that by simply labeling something or someone "Christian," while denying that label's meaning, it will attract audiences turned off by Hollywood's usual insensitivity to religious themes? What possible motivation would a person who takes his faith seriously have to buy a ticket to a film that mocks his faith and ridicules fellow believers?

MGM says it will release the film in a few major cities to measure audience response. If enough people buy tickets, the studio says it will distribute it more widely.

This film isn't going anywhere, except perhaps directly to DVD. It won't resonate positively with Mel Gibson's audience. Such people follow a different model and will recognize "Saved!" as Hollywood's cynical approach to anything higher than gratuitous sex and violence.

Your money should be spent elsewhere, or, better yet, saved!