Inside Move: Mel is shepherding the flock

'Passion' rounds up the faithful

Mel Gibson has decided to open “The Passion of the Christ” on a scale typical of big-budget Hollywood pics. (Icon and Newmarket are aiming for 2,000 U.S. screens for its Feb. 25 opening.) But the way the film is being promoted is anything but typical.

Courting churches and Christian spiritual leaders, Gibson is turning his film depiction of the crucifixion into a religious event.

Pastors and congregations are responding by raising money to buy blocks of tickets to theaters playing the pic.

Outreach Inc., a Vista, Calif.,-based firm that produces marketing materials for churches, has built an entire campaign around “Passion,” which it dubs the “best outreach opportunity in 2000 years.”

The message, says Outreach chief operating officer Doug Martinez, is to “invite people to theaters to see the film and then invite them back to the church.”

The firm sent out 250,000 promotional DVDs and encouraged pastors to play them for their congregations. Martinez says thousands of churches have responded, wanting to use the campaign.

On Jan. 5, more than 3,600 pastors attended a screening of “Passion” hosted by Gibson at the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. On Jan. 20, another 4,000 will attend a screening at the Willow Creek Church in Chicago.

The Rev. Cory Engel of the Harvest Springs Community Church in Great Falls, Mont., is one of the church leaders promoting the pic.

Engel showed the promo DVD to his 300-member congregation last weekend and raised nearly $9,000 to buy “Passion” tickets. He’s enlisted 15 other pastors to join the effort.

“We’re trying to mobilize 10,000 folks to get out and see this movie,” he says. “It’s worth paying people’s way for them to see it.”

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