NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Fans and foes cannot agree whether or not "The Passion of the Christ" is anti-Semitic, fetishistically gory, or historically accurate. But one thing is indisputable: it is wildly profitable.
The movie has taken in more than $315 million in gross U.S. receipts, according to boxofficemojo.com. Hundreds of millions more seem likely to come from international distribution, DVD sales, and seasonal re-releases from now till Armageddon.
While it would be facile to suggest that everyone buying tickets to "The Passion" is religious, the response to it does prove that the consumer appeal can be enormous for spiritually oriented entertainment.
From books to movies to music, religious categories are among the fastest growing in all media. And Mel Gibson's controversial work is far from the only blockbuster to emerge.
"This didn't start with "The Passion,"" says Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publisher's Weekly. "Publicity surrounding the movie has certainly given sales a bump, but this is a trend that has been growing steadily for at least 10 years."
Another blockbuster book
This week, evangelical publisher Tyndale House will release "The Glorious Appearing," the 12th installment in the "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The books are estimated to have already sold between 40 million and 50 million combined, and the concluding one may become the biggest seller of all.
|"Left Behind" series of novels†
|50 million copies sold†
|"A Purpose-Driven Life"†
|14 million copies sold†
|"The Passion of the Christ"†
|$315 million+ U.S. box office†
|Jars of Clay†
|Multiple Grammys, platinum records†
|No. 3 major-market radio network†
Tyndale House has shipped nearly 2 million copies of "Glorious Appearing," which goes on sale March 30. That dwarfs hardcover sales of any book whose title does not contain the words Harry Potter.
The success of the "Left Behind" novels mirrors that of a title from the non-fiction side of the best-seller list, Rick Warren's "Purpose-Driven Life." Published by the HarperCollins imprint Zondervan, the book has sold some 14 million copies over the past three years.
Few books in any category sell that well, but religious-themed books now represent the No. 3 publishing category by market share, after popular fiction and cooking. Most major publishing companies now have a religious imprint.
"Last year, the Book Industry Study Group (a market research firm) predicted that religious sales would drop by 3 percent," said Garrett of Publisher's Weekly. "Instead, they were up again, by 30 percent."
Other media have been blessed, as well. At least four network TV series have explicit religious themes, and many others regularly address spiritual topics. In fact, CBS has scored a mid-level hit with its show, "Joan of Arcadia," in which a 16-year-old finds herself doing the Lord's work.
In music, Contemporary Christian music (CCM) recordings now outsell classical and jazz music combined, according to Barry Alfonso, author of the "Billboard Guide to Contemporary Christian Music" (Watson-Guptill, 2002).
CCM performers embrace genres from heavy metal to hip-hop and everything in between. Cross-over stars include soul singer Rebecca St. James, rockers Jars of Clay and the recently disbanded Sixpence None the Richer, whose song "Kiss Me" was a No. 1 recording.
"Most people who bought Sixpence's music probably didn't even know they had Christian roots," said Alfonso.
One can also find God all over the radio dial. The number of religious stations in America grew by 32 percent last year, according to Arbitron. That was faster growth than Spanish-language broadcasting, which rose 31 percent, and "urban" programming, which expanded by 21 percent.
Religious broadcaster Salem Communications is America's No. 3 major-market radio network (after Clear Channel and CBS/Viacom), according to Joe D. Davis, executive vice president for radio at Salem.
Though religious marketers buy most of its spots, corporate America is well represented on Salem's advertiser list. Sponsors include Coca-Cola, Sprint, Bayer, Travelocity and others.
Last year, Salem's stations posted double-digit advertising gains in such disparate markets as Atlanta, Colorado Springs, and Portland, Ore., according to industry researcher Miller Kaplan. Mainstream radio saw flat or falling sales in all those places.
It's been widely noted that Gibson promoted "The Passion" by showing pre-release versions of it to sympathetic audiences, from preachers and pundits to the pope. For the faithful, such word-of-mouth promotion is as old as the teachings of Saint Paul.
These days, hit properties in religious media don't just share spiritual themes; they use the same marketing approaches.
To sell "Purpose-Driven Life," Zondervan has simulcast an instructional video to 1,500 churches, called the "40 Days of Purpose." It's a sort of lesson guide for the faithful, as well as an ad for Zondervan.
Similarly, Salem Communications has developed extensive "congregational marketing programs," through which it solicits pastors and parishioners to listen to Salem stations.
"There's an enormous trust that people of faith place in other people of faith," said Salem's Davis. "We appeal directly to the pastors as gatekeepers to the Christian community."
Congregations can drive music sales in much the same way, according to Alfonso.
CCM bands tour churches, and their songs are worked directly into liturgies. They also perform at events like Salem's "Celebrate Freedom" concert, an all-day musical festival that drew 175,000 people to a Dallas fairground last summer.
Ironically, even empty pews may contribute to crowded bookstores. Garrett conjectures that readers who are skeptical of the words from the pulpit may be turning to books.
"De-institutionalizing of American religion means a lot of people are not involved with formal churches," she said. "But they still have spiritual questions even if they don't go to church."