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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 April, 2004, 08:18 GMT 09:18 UK
Christ the movie: A passion for cash?
By Stephen Evans
BBC North America business correspondent

The Passion of the Christ image
The film is unlikely to improve relations between Jew and Christian
Whatever the arguments about the artistic merit or the theology of "The Passion of the Christ" there's no doubt that the film's been very good business indeed.

Many critics may have panned the biblical blockbuster as both a poor movie and as - how might one put it charitably - unlikely to improve relations between Jew and Christian.

But it's kept cinema box offices busy like never before.

Or, at least busy like rarely before.

Easter

Since "The Passion" opened nearly two months ago, it's taken more than $350m, making it on one estimate the eighth biggest box office earner of all time, and rising up the ranks by each phenomenal day.

Its distributor, New market Films, reckons it may yet take a total of $400m, so challenging Spider Man (which took $403m) for the title of fifth biggest earner on record.

The industry estimates that Mel Gibson's film took at least $17m over Easter when Christians believe Christ's crucifixion featured in the film occurred.

Such was the demand, the film returned to the No 1 spot in the popularity rankings seven weeks after its release.

Normally the pattern is for films to fade by then.

Catholic

In America, "The Passion" has received some blistering criticism (Frank Rich called it "a sadomasochistic gore fest" in the New York Times).

The Passion of the Christ image
The company making crosses and replica nail jewellery is taking on extra staff
But the people haven't followed the pundits.

They have flocked most to see it in cities with big Catholic populations (whether it be of Hispanic, Italian or Irish origin) like Chicago, Tucson and Phoenix.

The success is mirrored around the world.

When "The Passion" opened in Singapore, it took a day for it to become the top-earning film there.

It's broke box-office records in Britain.

The distributor of the film in the Middle East of all regions is quoted as saying that the film is more popular than either the James Bond movies or Titanic.

Merchandise

Clearly, the reason for seeing the film varies.

Many churches in the United States have block-booked cinemas for congregations.

The Passion of the Christ image
Hollywood and strong religion remain uneasy partners
Non-Christians may be drawn simply to see what all the fuss is about.

Others may quite like brutality on screen and a strong story line.

But whatever the motivation, big interest means big bucks.

As with any film, "The Passion" is accompanied by a vigorous merchandising drive.

You can buy replica nails on a leather thong for $12.99, described on the sales website www.catholicsupply.com as "The Passion of Christ Nail Pendant Women/Children".

The pitch continues: "Make a statement of faith with this 100% lead free pewter handcrafted design. The "Nail" pendant features Isaiah 53:5 inscribed on the side".

There are also "cross pendants", CDs and a coffee-table book (not quite, one imagines, the book of the film).

All are selling fast.

"The Passion of Christ II"?

The official glossy book reached No 3 on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list, and its original print run of 150,000 in the United States has been increased four-fold.

The company making the crosses and replica nail jewellery is taking on extra staff.

Which all raises one big question for the movie industry: How can they follow up the phenomenal success of "The Passion"?

It's clear that the film has tapped into something which Hollywood normally avoids like the plague: Strong, assertive religious belief.

Mel Gibson, who directed and financed the film himself outside the usual channels, will make a fortune from his enterprise, but it mirrors his strong belief.

Film industry executives seem to be divided between those who see "The Passion" as a one-off work, and those who believe a new-found religious market is there to be tapped.

It seems likely that mainstream film companies might be more attracted by Christian themes - accessible Christian books by C.S. Lewis spring to mind as promising material.

Expect films that attract Christians, but which also speak to others.

But few expect Mel Gibson's zealous Christian enthusiasm to be copied by many other media moguls.

Hollywood and strong religion remain uneasy partners.


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