God and plenty

Mel's 'Passion' set for 2,000-screen preem

Mel Gibson would have found few believers if he had predicted that his “The Passion of the Christ” — the gory account of the crucifixion, with dialogue in only Latin and Aramaic — would open in more theaters than “Bad Santa.”

But his Icon Prods., partnered with Newmarket Films, is preparing to do just that, unspooling “Passion” on 2,000 screens in the U.S. on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday.

Move would mark the widest opening ever of a subtitled pic — as well as the largest dead-lingo release — in the U.S., topping the 1,225 screens the reissue of Hong Kong actioner “Iron Monkey” debuted on in 2001.

It will also be the biggest opener handled by Newmarket, topping the 58 screens it secured for “Donnie Darko” in 2001 and the 556 peak of “Whale Rider” last summer.

By going wide, the pic’s backers are disdaining the platform release pattern most often employed for specialty films. That makes sense, distrib execs at other studios said, because “Passion” is likely to find its biggest auds in the Bible Belt and not large cities like L.A. and Gotham, where platform launches typically start.

“There’s more of a risk of going platform and facing a negative backlash in the big cities,” said a distrib exec. The distribber added he wouldn’t be surprised if major markets like Gotham ended up with fewer playdates than a smaller market such as Atlanta.

Exhibs say that demand to see “Passion” is strong, and major chains say they have already received inquiries from church groups about purchasing blocks of tix. Among the exhibs carrying “Passion” are AMC and Pacific Theatres.

Some chains are still deciding whether to play the pic. Chains that have a big presence in smaller markets, such as Carmike Cinemas and Regal Cinemas, are likely to play a major role in “Passion’s” release pattern.

Pic’s religious appeal could also find a fan in Regal’s majority holder, Philip Anschutz. The devout Christian is also the founder of Crusader Entertainment, which produces Christian films.

An exec at one major exhib chain says the major issue being weighed on whether to carry “Passion” is not the controversy over the pic, but whether the graphic depiction of the crucifixion may be too gory for religious auds. “We want to be sure people understand what they’re getting,” the exec said.

“Passion” has received massive media attention for a pic its size (Gibson reportedly spent $25 million producing it), initially tied to claims that it had anti-Semitic overtones.

Gibson kept “Passion” in the news as he courted Vatican approval of the pic, resulting in the pronouncement by the Pope, as reported by conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, “It is as it was.”

More quietly, Gibson has conducted a grassroots marketing campaign aimed at evangelical Christians, Catholics and political conservatives. On “Passion’s” web site, fans can buy posters, door hangers and postcards “perfect for insertion into bulletins.”

To appeal to a broader moviegoing audience, teasers began running in theaters on Dec. 25. This Friday, the trailer will be released. “Entertainment Tonight” has been promoting its broadcast exclusive first look skedded for Thursday’s edition.

Promoting “Passion” to parishioners is reminescent of the successful release of “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie” in 2001, Big Idea Prods.’ screen version of its Christian children’s videos, distribbed by Artisan. By opening on more than 900 screens outside of major markets on the East Coast and working with church groups, “VeggieTales” grossed $25.6 million at the box office.

Icon and Newmarket declined comment on the release plans for “Passion.”

(Anthony D’Alessandro and Carl DiOrio contributed to this story.)

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