Hollywood?s Bias Makes 'Passion' Unlikely Underdog

Posted: Mar 01, 2004 12:00 AM

With a five-day opening weekend gross of well over $100 million, Mel Gibson?s ?The Passion of the Christ? is shocking Hollywood in becoming a certified blockbuster.  Even as recently as this past week, the ?experts? were predicting a total opening weekend take of $30 million?slightly more than it made on just the first day.

  Thus continues the strange odyssey of ?The Passion.?

  Easily one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood was planning to write and direct a movie about the most famous and revered figure in history.  And the budget would be nothing: $25 million.  The average movie?not the average blockbuster, mind you?has a <I>marketing</I> budget north of $25 million.

  No one bit.

  Gibson had to personally finance ?The Passion,? and then he had to contract with relatively obscure arthouse indie Newmarket Films to handle the distribution.

  Sure, Gibson was behind the camera and not in front of it.  But it was clear that the devout Catholic was pouring his heart and soul into the film, and any contract could have required Gibson to plug on the usual array of TV and print media outlets.

  And how could you not get media attention about a movie showing the death of Jesus?  Controversy sells tickets, certainly enough to cover a skimpy $25 million budget.

  Taking a broader view, ?The Passion? was not just a smart business bet because of the specifics of the film?Gibson, the low cost, the inevitable controversy?but because religious films make money.

  Not that Hollywood has first-hand experience with religious movies.  Without the truly deep pockets of the major studios, the only overtly Christian movies to come out in the past few years have been low-budget cheapies with minimal star wattage. 

  The flicks may not have won critics? hearts, but deprived Christian audiences made both ?The Omega Code? and ?Left Behind: The Movie? profitable.  The $8 million-budgeted ?Omega? raked in $13 million at theaters (plus a bundle more in video rentals and sales), and though it was a dud at theaters, the $17-million ?Left Behind? sold more than 3 million copies on DVD and VHS?a threshold even many hit films don?t reach.

  Another interesting case study comes from early 2002 with two non-religious movies, though one did explicitly keep it clean.  One starred PG-rated pop singer Mandy Moore, the other was the debut of Madonna?s prot?, Britney Spears.  Most industry analysts predicted ?Crossroads,? boasting a scene where negligee-clad Spears jumps in excitement, would out-gross Moore?s family-friendly ?A Walk to Remember.?  The experts were wrong.

  To see that there is an audience for entertainment that wears its Christianity on its sleeve, network television probably provides better examples.  Not that there are many, though.

  It seems only CBS has been willing to take the risk of airing overtly religious-themed programs.

  In a world where roughly 80 percent of new shows don?t get renewed to a second season, CBS scored a long-running success with Touched by an Angel and this season has an unlikely hit with Joan of Arcadia. 

  Touched, which outlasted even most hit shows by staying on for nine years, was CBS?s highest-rated drama for much of that time.  And Joan, a quirky show that most critics predicted would flop, has thrived despite being dumped into what is normally a deadly timeslot, Fridays at 8pm EST. 

  Religion is such a fringe element in entertainment that it?s easy to forget that Hollywood wasn?t always afraid to embrace faith. 

  Consider that two of the greatest Tinseltown classics are big-budget religious epics, one of which was ?ripped from? the Bible.  ?The Ten Commandments? raked in a then-staggering $65.5 million back in 1956?and nearly a half-century later, it still garners heavenly ratings for ABC every year on Easter Sunday.  Making slightly more at the box office was ?Ben-Hur,? which grossed $74 million in 1959.

  In today?s dollars, ticket sales like that would translate to roughly $400 million apiece.  Given the graphic violence making it unsuitable for children (or even for repeat viewing for most adults), ?The Passion? faces an uphill climb to reach such lofty heights.

  Already, though, Gibson?s gamble has been vindicated.  The $25 million budget was covered in the first-day gross of $26.6 million.

  Only the ?experts? should be surprised.