Area churches reserve seats for Gibson's film on Jesus

Friday, February 6, 2004

Churches are reserving entire theaters for opening day. A national evangelical organization is helping sell tickets from its Web site. Pastors are planning sermons timed to the movie's Ash Wednesday release.

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.

In Cape Girardeau, at least three churches have reserved screening rooms at the Town Plaza Cinema, said theater staff.

Lynwood Baptist Church will view the movie at 7 p.m. Feb. 27.

Centenary United Methodist Church has reserved a screening room for a 4 p.m. matinee on Feb. 28.

"There's a lot of genuine interest," the Rev. Clayton Smith said. "The timing is good for us because it's the beginning of Lent."

Smith expects a crowd of about 200 church members and their guests.

After the picture, the group will gather for pizza and a movie review discussion at the church's Family Life Center at 300 N. Ellis St. Discussion booklets will be provided.

LaCroix United Methodist has reserved a screening room for 8 p.m. Feb. 28.

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.

Staff writer Mike Wells contributed to this report

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