Ten years after Mel Gibson’s ”The Passion of the Christ” confounded Hollywood and became a grassroots blockbuster, Jesus is coming back for a second try in “Son of God,” opening Feb. 28.
“The Passion of the Christ” grossed over $600 million in theaters alone. It set records for the highest grossing R-rated film in the United States and the highest grossing non-English language film of all time. It had English subtitles because the film was voiced in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. The subtitles, in particular, had Hollywood suits laughing at the film’s prospects, and made it difficult for Gibson to find a distributor until the last minute.
With a publicity budget of only $10 million — nothing by Hollywood standards — “Son of God” is trying to duplicate the grassroots strategy that paid off for Gibson.
The filmmakers screened clips from the film at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington earlier this month, and asked attendees to become “movie mobilizers” on social media. They also encouraged faith leaders to buy 1,000 or more advance tickets, or even to buy out an entire theater.
The form distributed at the trailer screening urged faithful churchgoers to attend the film’s opening “en masse” as an “act of faith” to “send Hollywood a message.” Small and large churches are being asked by the producers to buy hundreds or even thousands of tickets with the goal of selling out theaters coast to coast thus creating movie buzz loud enough to ripple through the heavens.
Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey are more famous and influential than their relatively low profile suggests. Their most recent mega-success was 2013’s “The Bible” miniseries. According to the Hollywood Reporter, during its five-week run on the History Channel, “The Bible” averaged 11.4 million viewers and then went to become the top-selling mini-series of all time on DVD.
But before Bible fame, Burnett was known as the man who created the reality TV genre, birthing such iconic hits as “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “The Voice,” “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” and “Shark Tank,” to only name a few off his long list of producer credits. His wife, Roma Downey earned fame starring in the television hit “Touched by an Angel,” which aired from 1994 to 2003.
As the presentation began, Burnett gave a loving tribute to his wife, who initially dreamed up the “crazy idea” of a Bible mini-series. Burnett did not say that the series was predictably rejected by major networks, eventually landing on the History Channel.
While producing “The Bible,” Downey had another wild idea: making a movie about the life of Jesus simultaneously. Downey said she thought, “So why not shoot a little extra footage here and there while the sets, cast and crew were already in place?”
(Burnett told the men in the audience that they should always listen to their wife.)
After playing the trailer, Downey and Burnett told the crowd that they heard about the Prayer Breakfast gathering and decided to come by at the last minute. They had been touring the country non-stop generating interest in the movie. “Miraculously,” Burnett said, the movie would have a wide national release in 3,000 theaters.
From their point of view, “Son of God” is a “love story” and their goal is to “share the love of Christ with the world.” Burnett and Downey also said that they made this film with the expectation that it will become an instant classic and stand the test of time, for not since 1965’s epic, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” has there been a major movie about the entire life of Jesus. (The producers reminded the audience that “The Passion of the Christ” was only about the last 12 hours of his life.)
Gauging from the final reaction of this elite group of about 150 national religious leaders, it was clear that the pair had turned the entire audience into movie promoters for “Son of God.”
So far, the strategy seems to be paying off. Megachurch pastor Rick Warren has bought out screens in eight different theaters throughout Orange County, California, and “Son of God” will be playing on all 13 screens at the Cinemark megaplex in Cincinnati.
So will “Son of God” be as big as “Passion of the Christ” a decade ago?
For one thing, even the non-religious will be unable to tune out the escalating media coverage. (Hoping to avoid some of the negative coverage that plagued “The Bible,” producers cut scenes that featured Satan, who was criticized in the miniseries as looking suspiciously like President Obama.)
Obviously Christian soldiers are mobilizing their troops to make a statement on the film’s opening weekend. As Warren put it, “The message of the gospel deserves to be on the big screen, and this is our chance to see it there.”
Cross-posted from The Daily Beast.