Mel Gibson's epic, "The Passion of the Christ," is the subject of an unprecedented marketing effort that has inspired everyday Christians and their spiritual leaders to sell the film and its message - both to other faithful and the nonreligious.
Excited that an Oscar-winning, Bible-believing director is using his own millions to portray Jesus' torture and crucifixion, and roused by the controversy over the film's depiction of Jews, these evangelical volunteers could well make the movie a huge box-office success, marketing experts say.
"They're going to bus them to theater. They will give assignments in many churches - go to the movie, we're going to talk about it," said Josh Baran, a New York public relations executive who helped publicize "The Last Temptation of Christ." "I think it's going to be one of the big movies of the year."
The groundswell is stunning considering the once-dismal expectations for the film, which is in Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic with English subtitles and is rated R for violence. It is set to debut Feb. 25 on 2,000 screens - an unusually large release for an independent religious film.
Gibson's team has fueled the fervor by teaming up with evangelical marketing firms that have been providing free promotional kits, movie-related sermons and tips on how pastors can buy out an entire theater. The personal publicist for the Rev. Billy Graham has been hired to help.
Yet pastor Cory Engel, of Harvest Springs Community Church in Great Falls, Mont., who is using the free kit and plans sermons linked to the film, said he did not feel that he was selling a movie. Members of his church have raised $12,000 to stand by a box office and buy tickets to "The Passion" for filmgoers.
"This is a window of opportunity we have. Here's a guy who's putting his money into a movie that has everything to do with what we do," Engel said. "Churches used to communicate by having a little lecture time on Sunday morning. People don't interact that way anymore. Here's a chance for us to use a modern-day technique to communicate the truth of the Bible."
Christian Booksellers Association, as part of its broader "Reclaiming Easter" campaign, is asking its 2,500 U.S. retailers to consider selling tickets and posting displays about the movie in their stores.
The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 50 denominations with 43,000 congregations, has posted a link on its Web site for buying tickets. The price includes a $1 donation for the group.
Arch Bonnema, an insurance executive and Southern Baptist from Plano, Texas, is spending $42,000 of his own money to buy about 6,000 tickets, reserving all 20 screens of a local theater for an opening day showing.
"As a Christian, you hear the term 'Jesus sacrificed his life for us.' We say it so many times that it's routine," said Bonnema, who saw a version of the film a few weeks ago. "I walked out of the theater and thought, `This is incredible.' I thought, `Man, this really puts it in perspective."'
Some Jewish and Christian leaders disagree, warning the movie could revive the idea that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Christ - which many Christian denominations now reject.
Gibson, who is Roman Catholic, has repeatedly denied that his film maligns Jews: He sees the movie as a reflection on Christ's sacrifice for the sins of humanity. Many conservative Christians support him, viewing the criticism as an assault on the Bible and one of the central events of their religion.
"When they attack him, they attack millions of people in middle America," said Jennifer Giroux, a Cincinnati nurse and Roman Catholic who created seethepassion.com.
"We have watched films concerning the Holocaust with compassion, concern and with sorrow, and we just want to be able to watch this beautiful, beautiful movie about our faith."
For months, Gibson has shown rough cuts of the film to select audiences, mostly with strong Christian backgrounds. He's won the endorsement of local pastors and major figures - including Graham.
Outreach Ministry Inc., an evangelical organization, sent DVDs with a trailer from the movie to "most churches in the United States," according to its Web site, thepassionoutreach.com. The site calls the film "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2000 years."
Merchandise related to the film is being produced for the evangelical market. The International Bible Society will sell a version of the New Testament that contains images from the film. Movie-related jewelry, prayer-cards and tracts - Christian pamphlets used for evangelizing - are also planned.
Representatives from Outreach referred calls to Gibson's spokesman, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Said Kyle Fisk, spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals: "Churches are intending to use this film to share their faith with people in their community who would never go into a church but would take a free ticket to go to `The Passion."'
By Rachel Zoll