News > Companies
Gibson film may let studios get religion
Expected box office success of 'Passion' should prompt Hollywood to take new look at market.
February 25, 2004: 11:46 AM EST
By Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Senior Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Can Mel Gibson help Hollywood find Jesus?

"The Passion of the Christ" is expected to be a hit and could prompt Hollywood to make a new push for Christian filmgoers.

Christian filmmakers and many other movie industry observers think so. They say that Gibson's success reaching out to religious leaders to market his controversial "The Passion of the Christ" is showing Hollywood that there is a untapped market of conservative Christian filmgoers eager to go to the movies for the right kind of fare.

Several box office projections suggest "Passion" could do $40 million to $50 million in box office from its Ash Wednesday opening this week through the end of the weekend Sunday, possibly on its way to hitting $100 million.

graphic graphic graphic
The Passion of the Christ opens today at theatres across the country. CNNfn's J.J. Ramberg takes a look at the advance ticket sales and whether the controversy surrounding the film will translate to big bucks at the box office.

premium content Play video
(Real or Windows Media)

Those who have been making and supporting movies pitched to the Christian community say they are already seeing signs of change by the Hollywood studios. Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, said that he knows of at least 10 biblical films now in the works, several with major studios competing for them.

Paul Lauer, director of marketing for Gibson's Icon Productions, told Reuters last month that if "Passion" does as well as they hope the opening weekend, "I think there'll be a lot of powerful people in Hollywood saying, 'Somebody get me a Jesus picture.' "

Many mainstream studio executives, even some with relatively recent religious films, declined to comment on the outlook for such films, partly due to the controversy surrounding "Passion."

The film, directed by Gibson, which depicts the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ's life in a graphic, sometimes gruesome manner that earned it an R-rating, has sparked controversy among those that say it unfairly blames Jews for Christ's crucifixion.

"Jonah - A Veggie Tales Movie" did $25 million in box office in 2002, opening on just under 1,000 movie screens.

Gibson, who belongs to a conservative Catholic church and who bankrolled the $25 million movie himself, denies that charge. The controversy will probably help to bring some curious moviegoers into theaters, and help make money not only for Gibson but for Newmarket Films, the independent studio distributing the film in the United States. Both Gibson's production company and Newmarket also declined to comment for this article.

But one studio executive, speaking on condition his name not be used, said he also expects mainstream studios to take a new look at religious movies assuming "Passion" is the success it is now expected to be.

The 1998 film  
The 1998 film "The Prince of Egypt" did $101.4 million in U.S. box office in telling the story of Moses.

"If this film is really successful, the major studios will have a difficult series of questions they will face," said the executive. "Commercial movie studios don't want to make overtly political films. But on the other hand, the movie industry is all about making money. If these movies have a real audience, at least one of the studios is going to want to make some of them."

But much of the marketing success, which has resulted in millions of tickets presold to the movie, is from Gibson's courting of church groups, particularly the 28 percent of the nation that belongs to fundamentalist Christian churches.

Most Christian themed movies in recent years have operated on a relative shoe string budget, with only a small fraction of the nearly 3,000 screens that "Passion" will open on. That's hurt the quality and marketability of such films, says Andre van Heerden, producer and director with Cloud Ten Pictures, which makes Christian-themed films. The company has had to release most of its films on video and DVD first partly to raise cash, then try to get into theaters.

Related stories
U.S. audiences see "Passion"
"Passion" to have wider opening
Oscars 2004 special report

"Most of the people who are trying to make these movies aren't independently wealthy; they don't have Mel Gibson's $25 million to take the risk," said van Heerden. "When we made 'Left Behind,' we based it on a best-selling novel, but our main star is Kirk Cameron. That's not going to sell a lot of seats. We didn't have any money to put into TV, we couldn't even do posters."

Dreamworks' "Prince of Egypt," an animated telling of the story of Moses, did just over $100 million in box office in 1998. Big Idea's children's movie "Jonah -- A Veggie Tales Movie" did $25.6 million in box office when the animimate biblical tale opened on 940 screens in 2002. But that wasn't enough to stop the company dedicated to making bible story videos and films for children from filing for bankruptcy court protections last year due to cash flow problems and a lawsuit.

Religion and Belief
Mel Gibson
Box Office

Many in the Christian film community think a breakout hit like "Passion" could open the door for religious films at the Hollywood studios. They say that even if the studios don't rush to produce big-budget religious films themselves, at least the films will have an easier time finding studios willing to put their marketing clout behind a film in a distribution deal.

"I don't think it's because of the material that Hollywood shies away from these films. They just don't understand the market," said Bobby Downes, CEO of Christian, which makes its own films as well as selling other company's religious-themed movies. "Slowly it's becoming evident to everybody that there is a market. The more films that are released that break down stereotypes, the more risks studios and producers will take. It's a business."

"The Ten Commandments" did $65 million in U.S. box office in 1956, equivalent to more than $750 million in today's dollars, making it the No. 5 movie of all time in inflation-adjusted U.S. box office.

And several box office analysts say given Hollywood's desire to copy films that are unexpected successes, they fully expect to see a flood a religious-themed films in the three or four years it takes to produce them, just as this year will see a rash of "sword-and-sandal" movies following the success of "Gladiator" in 2000.

"I do expect a Noah's ark film and a Revelations film down the pike pretty quickly after this," said David Mumpower, president of Box Office, which forecasts and tracks movie revenue. "A Ten Commandments remake isn't outside realm of possibility."  Top of page

  More on NEWS
Premier League revenues hit record high $6.4 billion
From witness stand, AT&T chief details new $15-a-month streaming service
Window seat or aisle? After Southwest incident, some fliers think twice
Who loses if Trump ditches Iran deal?
10-year Treasury yield hits 3% for first time since 2014
Uber CEO on diversity report: We need to improve 'across the board'

graphic graphic