We are hearing anecdotal evidence from around the country that a massive audience is developing for The Passion of the Christ consisting of, in some cases, traditionalist Christians who have not been to a theater in decades.
In the suburbs of Seattle, Washington, an 85-year old retired aerospace worker who rarely attends movies and whose last foray to the Cineplex was to watch the Omega Code five years ago is ready for a return visit.
In Dallas, a 78-year-old social worker who last visited a movie theater in 1985 is also eagerly anticipating her return to her local theater.
And in the suburbs of St. Louis a 70-year-old teacher who has never–never–been inside of a movie theater is making her plans to attend her first movie ever–Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Why? Because for the first time in history and in a manner and scale only hinted at by films like The Omega Code and Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie, a film has finally emerged that has five key ingredients: Star power, mainstream credibility, controversy, wide simultaneous release and deep resonance with traditionalist Christians.
When the dust settles after March 1, many of the rules of the filmmaking business may need revisions. For the first time, the industry will realize the profits that have been forfeited over the years by creating films that were out of sync with the interests of the citizens of the red states. In a post-Passion world, whoever figures out as Gibson apparently has, how to consistently tell stories that appeal to the heartland will be the beneficiary of the wellspring of affection Gibson’s film has generated among people traditionally hostile to Hollywood.
Some felt that the 1988 film The Last Temptation Of Christ taught the filmmaking community that controversial and divisive topics shouldn’t be addressed by filmmakers, but the opposite appears to be true. As the response to Gibson’s film is proving, controversy alone sells a certain number of tickets, but the nature of the controversy and the quality of the film itself is crucial to widespread success. Scorsese’s film was so deeply offensive to the values of the heartland that one Christian leader tried to buy the print so he could destroy it. Gibson’s is so widely lauded by the same groups that it may be difficult to buy a ticket opening week.
The film business will continue with or without the evangelical Christian audience that will be coming out in massive numbers this week, but if the desire is for profits, this constituency which makes up roughly 40 percent of the U.S. population is ignored at the film business’s own peril.
While early box-office estimates have predicted a $30 million opening, these surveys are misleading for they focus on traditional filmgoers. What the surveyors have missed is a massive tidal wave of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians and traditionalist Catholics, some of whom don’t ordinarily attend films. It is quite possible that rather than a $30 million opening that is forecasted, we may instead be looking at a five-day opening weekend north of $70 million.
This would of course be uncharted territory and an opening of the magnitude that we are seeing may fundamentally reshape the nature of the movie business when the final numbers come in. When and if that happens, the rush will be on to find out how to keep this audience coming back.
–Ralph Winter is the producer of X-Men I & II, The Planet of the Apes, and Hangman’s Curse. Mark Joseph is the author of the forthcoming The Passion of Mel Gibson: The Story Behind the Most Controversial Film In Hollywood History.