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Michael Levine - Contributor

Michael Levine is the founder of the prominent public relations firm Levine Communications Office in Los Angeles. He is the author of 15 books. - [go to Levine index]

Three Reasons for the Passion Over The Passion
An appreciation from one of Hollywood's most prominent public relations agents...
[Michael Levine] 3/19/04

Mel Gibson’s new film The Passion of the Christ had an unprecedented amount of buzz going by the time it was released. Without a doubt, it has been one of the most anticipated movies ever. The Passion of the Christ recreates arguably the single most significant narrative of Western Civilization with vivid and unsparing realism. However, one might expect the film’s manner of depicting its subject to guarantee failure at the box office. Surprisingly, it has done more than outstandingly well in ticket sales so far. Examining the promotion of The Passion in the weeks prior to its release reveals, in my professional opinion, three reasons for the film’s success.

1. The publicity for Passion made public every production detail of the film well before its release and promoted them together as a major selling point for the film. The film, shot in Latin and Aramaic, was originally to be released without subtitles, "letting the performances speak for themselves." James Caviezel, the actor playing Jesus, suffered several major injuries in the course of his role, including being struck by lightning during the filming of the Sermon on the Mount. Paula Fredriksen and other scholars of the New Testament who had criticized the film’s accuracy were accused by Gibson’s company Icon Productions of stealing scripts of the then-unreleased film. Gibson himself announced that he decided to make the film at the tail-end of a suicidal depression. These are details that are more often left for DVD "special features"-- not the average TV or radio spot.

2. In addition to the interesting tidbits behind the scenes, Gibson’s PR team can attribute their success with The Passion to the support it received from the grassroots campaign it shamelessly planted in religious organizations across America. Many religious groups were anxious to hitch their wagons to The Passion. The interest was so apparent that these organizations became the advertisement for the movie itself, not just for the Christian message it advertised. For example, the Campus Crusade for Christ broadcast ads during a PAX-TV special on the making of The Passion about what a major outreach tool the film was, and how it could help Crusaders spread the Word on college campuses with renewed fervor. The movie is being used as a form of evangelicalism. Websites like give resources on how to promote this movie as a galvanizing tool. Icon, the movie's distributor, directly marketed to churches by approving materials such as related tracts, pins, postcards, etc. By doing so, it engaged churches directly and secured a built-in audience—the congregation. But Passion’s PR took this message beyond just the Bible Belt, using the religious endorsements as evidence in press releases of the film’s educational value.

3. Finally, the success of Passion’s PR campaign depended upon promoting the one thing that inevitably follows any movie about Christ: controversy. It was no accident that the truth of the most frequently used quote for the movie, "It is how it was," cannot even be confirmed. While some religious leaders may or may not be endorsing the film, plenty have done more than just voice their endorsements. Strategic viewings were offered to select audiences in churches across the Bible Belt. Religious groups who saw the film in advance of its release praised or condemned the film, the main area of controversy, aside from the film’s incredible goriness, being how much the story depicted casts guilt on the Jews of the time (and, by extension, their descendants of today) as responsible for the death of Jesus. We even heard from high-ranking Vatican officials insisting the film was not anti-Semitic.

Now in the early stages of its theatrical run, The Passion has impressed itself on filmgoers’ minds as more than just another movie: it contains so much deep significance that its viewers will have, not just an evening’s entertainment, but a profound, perhaps life-changing experience. How many movies’ promotional campaigns even try to get audiences to feel that? Mel Gibson’s publicity team couldn’t possibly have generated the kind of marketing success they did without the help of strong advocates of the movie; in fact, the publicists depended on it. This whole aspect of independent talk about The Passion spurred the rise of conferences between Christian and Jewish leaders to discuss relations and historical significance—a bridge to better understanding.

So why is The Passion such a PR success? Because you’ve got ordinary, everyday people endorsing this movie as if they were hired-- and getting paid big bucks-- to do so. You’ve got every possible sphere covered—financial success (over 3000 theaters for an independent film), academic interest (the scholarly review of gospel evidence), religious enthusiasm (churches eager for an opportunity to spread Christianity), historical debate (did the Jews kill Jesus?), and political controversy (anti-Semitism--what about its effect on audiences abroad?)—all the makings of a good blockbuster. CRO

copyright 2004 Michael Levine



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