Religious theme great for theater biz

“The Passion of the Christ” seems set to not only replicate its Stateside success in the Middle East but to rewrite the rules of local exhibition.

With distribution in the hands of Prime Pictures of Lebanon, pic is slated to open in Syria and Jordan on March 17. In Lebanon, where it opens March 18, the initial run of three prints has been extended to 12 following unprecedented interest.

Advance sales in Lebanon total 25,000, a figure put in context by total admissions of 75,000 for “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” one of last year’s biggest films.

Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch has advised all Christians to see the film, claiming it is “not at all anti-Semitic. When we see it, we know how much Christ suffered for people’s sins.”

Estimates for final admissions run as high as 300,000, leading Prime Pictures CEO Hamad Atassi to hazard that it will break all local film records.

With all major theaters in the country signed up to exhibit the film, even old closed-down moviehouses are looking to reopen to screen it.

In the United Arab Emirates, the minister of information is changing local regs to allow the depiction of a prophet onscreen, something previously forbidden.

Atassi says there’s strong interest from Bahrain, Kuwait and Egypt to release the film. He has been given assurances the film will pass uncut in Bahrain and Egypt.

“We’ve even had interest from a government organization in Iran, which is very unusual. This film could open the door for religious films in the future,” Atassi says.

Interest has also been strong in the birthplace of Christ, with the single theater in Ramallah in the Palestinian territories asking for a print.

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