Palm Sunday, April 13 marked the beginning of Holy Week, when Christian believers celebrate the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. That evening, "The Passion of The Christ" made its commercial television debut on the UP Television Network.
Viewership was so strong, averaging 1.1 million viewers and placing 8th in its time period among cable networks, the faith-friendly network this week it will air an encore presentation with limited commercial interruption at 10 pm EDT/7 pm PDT on Thursday, April 17, as part of its two-week celebration of Easter.
These television events mark the ten-year anniversary of Mel Gibson's epic film that captivated the world and made box office history in its dramatic portrayal of the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus on the day of His crucifixion nearly 2,000 years ago.
There has been significant media coverage about the growing docket of religious-themed entertainment and Hollywood biblical epics of late, including Darren Aronofsky's "Noah," Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's "Son of God" theatrical release and "The Bible" miniseries. Still others are set to release this year, including Randall Wallace's "Heaven is for Real" and Ridley Scott's "Exodus," to name a few.
But it was Mel Gibson and Icon Productions that arguably pioneered the genre, identified a receptive affinity faith audience and set a high bar of elevated production values. They also fashioned a marketing model that didn't just strike a nerve, but rather created a wave for others to follow – based on either a spiritual or financial incentive – to reach a previously unrecognized market.
I had the opportunity and privilege of working with Mel Gibson and his production company to help publicize this vital film, showcase it in advance to Christian leaders and position it for the faith community. I found him to be a man of deep spiritual conviction for whom this film was a labor of love that grew out of his authentic personal conviction and faith experience. He was as committed to his calling to tell this story that had affected him so deeply as he is to his craft – despite the risk and opposition associated with the project.
This film captures the passion of Christ by realistically portraying His divinity and human sufferings as they occurred, based on the authority of the Gospels and accuracy of historical, ecclesiastical and linguistic research. It is a rendering that is as close as possible to what Mel Gibson perceived the truth to be, following countless conversations with many scholars and theologians.
The cast and crew engaged on-set in the production of "The Passion" were like the United Nations, composed of different races and religions, including Christians, Jews, Muslims – even Agnostics – many of whom were touched or changed by the experience.
Foreseeing the importance of engendering support from national Christian influencers, denomination and diocesan leaders; and local grassroots pastors and priests, Gibson sought to mend the historically strained relationship between the Church and Hollywood.
In the end, The Passion of The Christ achieved a 'perfect storm of media coverage brought about by saturation of the Christian audience, a comprehensive marketing campaign and enough controversy to draw the interest of secular media and movie-goers.
Christian audiences helped "prime the pump" for mainstream audiences to follow in order to reach critical mass at the box office, becoming the highest grossing religious film of all time, totaling $370 million domestic and more than $611 million worldwide.
Mel Gibson's intention in producing "The Passion" was to create a lasting work of art and engender serious thought among audiences of diverse faith backgrounds (or none). His hope was that this powerful story of a sacrifice willingly given would affect – even transform – people on a deeply personal level. Indeed, the movie's central themes of faith, hope, love and forgiveness are virtues that are sorely needed in these turbulent times.
Despite every effort to make a movie that inspires, not offends, months prior to release, it was engulfed by controversy, rumors and innuendo. One can always expect a strong reaction when delving into religion or politics – areas that contain our most strongly held personal beliefs.
Those who chose not to see the film but are curious about its content and want to view the PG-13 television version can rest assured it does not differ from the accounts in the four New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John available in any hotel room.
After the release of "The Passion," Gibson was all but exiled by Hollywood. Some of that ire stemmed from incidents in Gibson's personal life, but much of it was driven by personal attacks seemingly intended to mute and discredit artistic expression.
"(Mel) is something of a martyr in the current situation, a pioneer who took the arrows so that the settlers – faith-oriented storytellers and filmmakers – could thrive," said Tom Allen of Allied Faith and Family. "He's an intense man, troubled, inspired and generous. He is also a genius whose unique talent should be embraced by the creative community rather than rejected."
Personally, I'm confident that Mel Gibson will win back the respect of his Hollywood colleagues and find his way into the hearts of the movie-going public, perhaps beginning with their support of the "The Passion" broadcast this weekend. To use an analogy from the film, it's Friday, but Sunday is coming. God is a god of the Second Chance.
Now, 10 years on, Aronofsky's fantastical interpretation of "Noah" has garnered praises such as, "a heartfelt, personal plea for the reconciliation of often-competing moral codes," deemed "psychologically credible" and that it conveys a "quieter message about the fine line between mercy and justice." But on RottenTomatoes.com, "Noah" stands at 76 percent of critical approval, with only 47 percent of audiences liking the film. In an almost exact reversal, "The Passion" split critics down the middle with 49 percent approval, but was a hit with audiences at 80 percent.
Of course, the glaring difference between these films is the fact that "The Passion" was a personal project Gibson independently financed and produced, while "Noah" is a $125 million dollar studio tent-pole. But PR and marketing strategies Paramount used to engineer that turnaround were undeniably modeled after "The Passion" blueprint.
All this begs the question, why was Gibson's vision so reviled and Aronofsky's so embraced?
Gibson stated in multiple interviews that he did not hold Jews responsible for Christ's death and that the blame, in fact, lay with us all. In "Noah," humanity is also culpable: apart from Noah's clan, people are depicted as violent, rapacious and carelessly exploitative of the earth. Aranofsky takes pains to paint a complex theological picture, but one that presents God as a villain almost as much as His unfettered creations.
For "The Passion," in the end, villainy itself ultimately becomes irrelevant because Jesus paid the price for all. Gibson explained that he made the film because he could not find a satisfying vision of what his faith in Jesus had shown him in the extant artistic landscape. And that message was not one of comfort, but - as Gibson put it - "detergent for the soul." Considering that Hollywood currently sings the praises of a film about a globally cleansing flood, I now can't help but find his words ironic.
Larry Ross is president of A. Larry Ross Communications, a Dallas-based media/public relations agency founded in 1994, that provides crossover media liaison at the intersection of faith and culture. Though he helped promote the initial theatrical release of "The Passion" a decade ago, his company does not represent the television broadcast or the UP Network.