'Passion' will be rekindled on DVD

Posted: August 19, 2004

If, as the Bible says, it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, Mel Gibson is in for a very tough afterlife.

With The Passion of the Christ due out on DVD and VHS Aug. 31, Gibson is poised to reap a second immense fortune from his controversial film about the final hours of Jesus.

"It's safe to say Gibson will reap the most money any one person ever has from a single movie," says Brandon Gray, president of the film-tracking firm boxofficemojo.com.

Since its theatrical release in February, the film, with Jim Caviezel in the title role, has earned at least $609 million worldwide.

Because Passion was essentially self-produced, Gibson's take has been estimated at more than $200 million. In light of that windfall, Forbes magazine recently declared him the world's most powerful celebrity.

Now, DVD sales are expected to boost Gibson's personal profits above $400 million.

It's a shockingly lucrative turn of events for a project most people thought of as Gibson's folly.

No recent film has carried grimmer commercial prospects: a long, R-rated movie, full of unremitting brutality and suffering, set in ancient times, and focused on a religious figure. Just for good measure, throw in dialogue in two dead languages - Aramaic and Latin - necessitating subtitles.

Even Gibson, 48, a traditionalist Roman Catholic, termed his determination to get The Passion made "suicidal." In addition to directing and cowriting the film, the longtime matinee idol and action star was forced to put up $25 million himself when several Hollywood studios balked at bankrolling what was universally perceived as an albatross.

Then the Christian community rallied around the embattled film before its release on Ash Wednesday, encouraging the faithful to get out to see it early and often.

"The Passion brought people into theaters that hadn't been to a movie ever - or at least in a long time," says Steve Feldstein, senior vice president at Fox Home Entertainment, which is distributing the DVD. "The non-secular community was instrumental in its success."

That religious constituency is expected to supercharge sales.

"I'm sure that most of the evangelical churches in the country will buy at least one copy for their libraries," says Bob Waliszewski, entertainment specialist at Focus on the Family, an influential Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs, Colo. "Many evangelical families will buy a copy and make a habit of watching it around Easter time."

Fox has been actively preaching to the choir. "We've initiated outreach to churches and para-church organizations," Feldstein says. "There have been a variety of mailings and e-mail campaigns, much of it at a grassroots level."

A deal for churches

In a unique promotion, Fox offered churches a preorder discount on bulk packs of 50 DVDs or 50 VHS tapes. For an additional fee, the packaging on each copy could be customized with the church's name, a quotation from Scripture, or some other personalized message.

"There will be an extraordinarily high number of sales in the box loads. That's something you don't normally see," says Scott Hettrick, editor-in-chief of DVD Exclusive, an industry publication. "This title is bringing in a lot of people that never converted from VHS to DVD. You're getting quite a new audience."

The suggested retail price is $29.98 for DVD, $24.98 for VHS. The initial release contains only the film with no bonus features.

"They're not talking about it, but my guess is that they'll issue a more elaborate collector's edition around Easter time," Hettrick says. "They had production crews shooting 'making-of' footage."

Religious-oriented chain stores have jumped all over the release with special offers, such as this one from Family Christian Stores: "Pre-buy The Passion of the Christ for just $19.95 & get Jesus: Fact or Fiction ($19.98 value) FREE, as well as a 20% shopping spree certificate good at any Family Christian Stores location nationwide!"

The big retail outlets, such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy, have stocked up as well. "Initial orders from retailers were 20 percent higher than projections," Feldstein says. Preliminary shipments of The Passion will total 15 million copies, Billboard magazine estimates.

A coattail effect

That's excellent news for Gibson. DVDs have become the cash cows of the film industry, and his take is richer than most.

"Fox made the strategic error of waiting until after the movie opened to negotiate the DVD deal," Hettrick says. "By then, Mel and [his company] Icon [Productions] had all the leverage. They were able to strike a deal exceedingly favorable to them."

On the day the DVD goes on sale, so will a new CD, Passion of the Christ: Songs. It contains offerings inspired by the film, from artists including Lauryn Hill, P.O.D., Brad Paisley with Sara Evans, and Kirk Franklin. The first single is "Relearn Love" from former Creed frontman Scott Stapp. This is the third Passion CD.

Simultaneously, several companies are flooding the market with religious-themed DVDs, seeking to sponge up some of Passion's overflow.

"Everybody is repackaging and rereleasing everything they have that's Christian-related or has Passion in the title," Hettrick observes. "The thinking is, . . . maybe [consumers will] want to buy a second title."

Even South Park is getting into the act, with a three-episode DVD, The Passion of the Jew, which includes a riotous cartoon portrait of Gibson in his underwear, cackling like Woody Woodpecker.

Where does all this hoopla leave the world's most powerful celebrity? Curiously, at loose ends.

Passion stirred up concerns from Jewish groups that it would ignite anti-Semitic sentiments. That fear wasn't allayed when Gibson's father, Hutton, gave interviews shortly before the film came out claiming that the Holocaust was a fabrication.

Though no increase in anti-Semitism has been apparent, the running controversy led to widespread rumors that Gibson had been exiled by the Hollywood establishment. The cover story in next week's TV Guide speculates that he has gone into hiding.

Certainly, Gibson has remained active behind the scenes as a producer, particularly in TV. He has a remarkable three network series debuting in the fall: the UPN drama Kevin Hill; CBS's baseball vehicle, Clubhouse; and the ABC sitcom Complete Savages.

As an actor, however, he hasn't had a leading role since Signs in 2002. The one project he had committed to, a sequel to the postapocalyptic Mad Max films that made his reputation, was shuttered after the invasion of Iraq because the African locations were deemed too risky.

Of course, with all that Passion loot pouring in, Gibson is in no hurry to look for work.

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com.

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