With the opening of what is sure to be one of the most talked about films of the year, BOP presents a special Wednesday box office preview.
"They just don't make Bible films like they used to," is apparently a thought that went through Mel Gibson's head some time ago, and his answer is The Passion of the Christ, a two-hour telling of part of the Gospel of John, covering the 12 hours up to the crucifixion of Jesus. This is without a doubt a very personal film to Gibson, who has sunk at least $30 million of his own money into its production, and at potentially great personal risk to his own career. Almost immediately, questions of sanity were raised; there hasn't been a major film about the Bible in perhaps 20 years or more, he had promised to make the film as graphic and detailed as possible regarding the crucifixion, and he planned to make the film entirely in Latin and Aramaic (the latter spoken only by about 100 people in Syria), without subtitles. Some form of sanity prevailed as Gibson added the subtitles, and we now have a film that most people can understand. Still, it's a film with a touchy subject and only Jim Caviezel and Monica Bellucci as recognizable cast members.
For a fair amount of time, the film languished without a distributor until relative upstart Newmarket Films (biggest profile release to date: Memento) picked it up. It appeared that this would be a small release because of that fact, but then, as controversy is wont to do, it stirred up interest and awareness of the film. At issue is the film's supposed anti-Semitism, specifically Jews calling for Jesus’ death. The response from Gibson seems to have been to downplay this section of the story, with this portion of the film appearing to be a Rorschach test on the issue for viewers. There was also the recent controversy regarding theater bookings, wherein a journalist claimed that the film was avoiding prominently "Jewish" areas. This was later shot down in dramatic fashion, notably by David Poland of The Hot Button.
Gibson himself took the film on a barnstorming tour to church groups in North America to drum up interest and even as far as the Vatican (and in a particularly odd moment, appeared to get an endorsement from the Pope, which was later denied). During this time, there was a good old-fashioned grass roots movement that started to propel the film. With virtually no direct marketing, The Passion has reached probably 100% saturation and awareness. Churches are buying entire showings and then selling at reduced ticket prices to their congregations. This is truly an unprecedented situation, at least in recent history.
The success of this film is certainly dependent (though not fully) on churches getting the word out, but simply being a religious film is no reason to think it has a speed pass to profitability. That didn't make the Left Behind movies or more recently, films like Luther break out of a narrow range. What seems to be different is the historical epic nature of the film and the grassroots movement propelling it, not unlike -- to use a wildly different film -- The Blair Witch Project. Of course, we're dealing with a group of people that are no strangers to the evangelical process (though the film will quite literally be preaching to the choir). One of the effects will be to bring out the "one film a year" crowd, a larger demographic than might be thought. The extreme nature of the film's violence (and R rating) could be a turnoff to some, though it is largely the point. Gibson himself has said that it may be too intense for those under 12.
This finally brings us to the Wednesday opening, which has come all the way up to 3,006 venues, a very wide slate by any measurement. The fact that there are over 4,600 prints is also important, something that indicates that the film is getting significant multiplex play. Naturally there will be a heavy first day demand as with any film. The way this demand is going to play out over the first five days is going to be very interesting, as many of the bought-out showings are for Sundays, which could shift the normal movie going patterns wildly. Right now, I'm predicting approximately an $11 million opening Wednesday, with a steep drop-off to $4 million on Thursday. I then predict a follow-through of around $35 million on the weekend, though what shape that may take is still in question. The Passion of the Christ promises to be one of the more interesting releases of the year, in sociological, cinematic and business senses. Stay tuned for more updates through the week.