Mel's flock spreads word to grass roots

Montreal Gazette/February 22, 2004
By Brendan Kelly

Canadian branch of Campus Crusade for Christ busily sows support for Gibson's controversial film

In an effort to help Mel Gibson's controversial movie The Passion of the Christ, Bob Kraemer, a former Winnipeg Blue Bomber receiver and a longtime official with an evangelical group, grabbed the ball and ran with it.

As director of special projects at the Langley, B.C.-based Canadian arm of Campus Crusade for Christ, Kraemer became keenly interested in the movie last autumn.

The Passion of the Christ is directed and co-written by Gibson. In fact, the star of Lethal Weapon and Braveheart also financed the $25-million (U.S.) film himself.

An ultra-traditional Catholic, Gibson has made what most reports describe as a brutal, emotionally charged look at the last day in the life of Christ, including graphic footage of his death on the cross.

All of the dialogue is in the languages of the time and place - Latin and Aramaic.

The movie opens in Montreal and across North America on Wednesday, which happens to be Ash Wednesday.

Thinking it would be a great tool to spread his group's evangelical message in Canada, Kraemer quickly contacted Icon Productions, Gibson's company, and persuaded it to let him take charge of developing grassroots support for the film among Canadian Christian leaders.

In an unprecedented move, it was Campus Crusade for Christ and not Equinoxe Films, the Canadian distributor of The Passion of the Christ, that organized a series of screenings across the country last month.

Kraemer's group screened it a dozen times in a host of cities, including Montreal, Halifax, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton and Surrey, B.C.

Most of the screenings were in churches in front of audiences of between 800 and 1,200 people, and Kraemer estimates that a total of 9,000 people saw The Passion of the Christ during the cross-country tour.

The viewers were almost all Christian church leaders, which is exactly what Gibson and Icon Productions wanted, Kraemer said.

In the United States, Icon Productions itself set up similar screenings for Christians.

Gibson's company has made no secret of its goal of using the movie to boost the Christian faith. Icon Productions sent promotional kits to churches in the United States with a flier that suggested the film is "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years."

Few Jewish leaders in Canada have seen the film. Gibson has said it is a faithful retelling of one of the world's most famous stories, based directly on the Scriptures. It has also been criticized by many for being anti-Semitic or, at the very least, a film that could incite anti-Semitism.

For Kraemer, the media focus on allegations of anti-Semitism is only serving to obscure the movie's real message.

"People want to talk about anti-Semitism, they want to talk about the graphicness (of the violence)," Kraemer said. "For us, the central thing is the character of Jesus and his death and resurrection. We want to make that the issue: Who is Jesus and what does Jesus's death and resurrection mean for people (today)? It's an obvious thing for us to want to jump on this opportunity."

But the charges that Gibson is potentially inciting hatred against Jews won't go away. Newsweek recently ran a cover story with a photo of Passion actor Jim Caviezel as a bloodied Jesus under the explosive headline "Who Really Killed Jesus?" The article, by the news magazine's managing editor and former biblical scholar Jon Meacham, argues Gibson's film can easily be interpreted as blaming the Jews for Christ's death.

Kraemer and executives at Montreal-based Equinoxe Films reject claims the film is anti-Semitic and say the controversy is simply helping to market the film.

"Ultimately, all publicity will be good publicity," Kraemer said. "Our interest is in getting people to see the film. People will see that (Christ's death) was a real act of sacrifice and that he did it so our sins can be forgiven."

"I think (the controversy) is positive because people will want to see it for themselves," said Yves Dion, vice-president of distribution at Equinoxe.

Dion said he doesn't see The Passion of the Christ as a religious film. But he said he thinks it's a cinematic masterpiece and will be a major hit.

He and two Equinoxe colleagues saw a rough cut of the movie at a cinema in the Soho district of London in October and all three were blown away.

"We were completely flabbergasted by the quality of the film," said Dion, who has worked in the Canadian movie distribution biz for 20 years. "This is one of the best directed and most powerful films I've ever seen."

Equinoxe quickly bought Canadian rights to The Passion of the Christ from Icon Productions and, Dion said, all of the top Canadian film companies were interested.

This was in contrast to the U.S., where, despite the fact it was a project by one of Hollywood's top stars, all the major studios passed on it. Finally, tiny Newmarket Films acquired the film's U.S. rights.

Equinoxe's original plan was to open it small in Canada, on about 20 screens.

But all of the media hoopla has the company now planning to give it a Hollywood-blockbuster launch on 200 screens on Wednesday. (It will be released on about 2,800 screens across North America.)

Equinoxe is spending less on marketing The Passion of the Christ than it would on other major releases because the film is benefiting from so much free publicity in the press.

"It's unusual because this film has been talked about for the past 12 months," Dion said. "It's on Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, Good Morning America, CNN. So the level of awareness is pretty high."

Equinoxe would usually buy more than $1 million worth of television advertising for a release of this magnitude, but instead is only spending about $300,000 on TV commercials, Dion said.

The entire Canadian marketing campaign will cost between

$1.7 million and $2 million, he said. Last year, Equinoxe spent more than $3 million marketing the Canadian hit Mambo Italiano.

U.S. box-office expert Paul Dergarabedian told Variety that The Passion of the Christ is one of the most talked-about movies since the first Star Wars prequel. The same Variety article reports that advance research predicts the indie film could make from $15 million to

$30 million U.S. on its opening weekend, and some studio executives are predicting it will gross $100 million during its North American run.

Partly because of the grassroots screenings for Christian leaders, churches are buying up thousands of advance tickets for the Gibson film, sometimes reserving entire screenings for their congregation. Advance sales to church groups are not quite as strong in Canada as they are south of the border, though at least one Canadian church bought more than 8,000 advance tickets, Dion said.

Kraemer attended all of the advance screenings for Christian leaders in Canada and said those viewers - clearly the primary target audience for the film - came away deeply moved by the experience.

"A holy hush came over the audience after the screening," Kraemer said. "In 12 showings, I didn't have more than three people voice negative opinions."

But will the general public be as enthusiastic?

Film-industry analysts are split on whether moviegoers are ready for Gibson's sometimes-gruesome traditionalist take on the life and death of Christ. Entertainment Weekly's cover story - titled "Can Mel Gibson survive The Passion of the Christ?" - suggests that Gibson's career might suffer just as much if the movie turns out to be a major hit. The article notes that if the film does boffo box office, but is still seen as anti-Semitic, Gibson's "defiant, unconciliatory stance may well be read as a decision to trade away Jewish concerns for Christian box-office dollars."

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