Miramax shifts ‘Priest’s’ date

Although “Priest” director Antonia Bird directs charges of “moral blackmail” at a Roman Catholic group opposed to her film, distributor Miramax Films will not release the controversial movie on Good Friday as planned. Pic now opens across the country five days later, on April 19.

Noting that Miramax execs were surprised by the “vehemence of the reaction to the release date,” marketing prez Mark Gill said at a press conference March 24 that the release date would be changed “out of respect for these concerns.”

The day before, the New York-based Catholic League for Religious & Civil Rights issued an 11-page condemnation of the movie, saying, among other things, that the “movie is designed to stick it to the Catholic Church.” The film focuses on a young priest leading a closeted gay life and an older priest having an affair with a female housekeeper.

In a three-page response, helmer Bird said she does not believe “that an organization as powerful and influential as the Catholic Church should be immune from observation and comment from nonmembers.” The Catholic League, she continued, “suffers from the blinkered, indeed totalitarian, view that the rest of us should share its assumptions.”

Her reference to “moral blackmail” came in response to League president William O. Donohue’s analogy that similarly harsh movies about Jews, blacks and gays, “in the unlikely event” they were made, would draw outcries from civil rights groups. Responding that the analogy was “beyond contempt,” Bird said Donohue “clearly has little knowledge of and scant interest in the way African- Americans have been depicted in movies over the years.”

Miramax released supportive comments from various clergymen and favorable critics’ quotes.

Although the League requested that the Walt Disney Co., Miramax’s owner, step in and prevent the nationwide release of the film, Gill said Miramax “by charter is an autonomous company,” and that the decision to change the date was “Miramax’s alone.” Pic opened March 24 in New York and Los Angeles; it widens to 10 screens April 7 and goes to about 300 screens April 19.

At the press conference, reporters’ questions focused on speculation that the controversy had been cooked up by the publicity-loving Miramax. Gill said the company anticipated “debate” but said, “People feel more strongly about it by far than we expected.”

Asked whether Miramax has considered making a donation to the Catholic League for the free publicity, Gill responded quickly, “No, we haven’t.”

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