Who'll Buy Mel's Movie?

Mel Gibson's "The Passion" isn't an easy sell. In fact, it seems no major studio wants to touch it. "It's not worth the aggravation," says a studio head. "Even if it makes money, it's not going to be 'Titanic'." And with it could come titanic problems: protests, hate mail, boycotts. "Even if it doesn't deserve it," says another film exec, "it's going to be used as a political football." After months of speculation about "The Passion," the question remains, Who will buy it?

Gibson's film--a traditional Roman Catholic portrayal of Jesus' death--has inspired more hostile attention than any movie in recent history, with accusations that it could foster anti-Semitism, even when few have seen it. Although supporters of the film are just as vocal, the film could prove a PR ulcer for any large, publicly held company. What's more, movies about Christ haven't scored at the box office for decades--and "The Passion" is in Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic with subtitles.

In 1988, Universal released Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," which proposed that Christ was plagued with the same doubts and appetites as normal men. The movie was met with outrage. "There were millions of letters written and 25,000 people marched on Universal," says Tom Pollock, then a top exec at the studio. "There were death threats against my chairman, myself and Marty Scorsese. There was security in our lives for years." And the movie made only $8.4 million.

Today studio executives invariably cite "Last Temptation" when discussing "The Passion." But, as Pollock points out, Gibson's movie should appeal to Christians, not alienate them. As one producer puts it: "If all the Jews in America don't go see 'The Passion' and all the Christians do, that's not so terrible. Commercially speaking." Will the audience be big enough to cover the $25 million Gibson apparently spent? Possibly. Jonathan Bock, head of Grace Hill Media, a PR firm that specializes in marketing movies to faith-based communities, has seen the film and believes it will appeal to all Christians, not just Catholics: "It's beautiful and tragic. For Christians, it's like watching a family member being beaten up for two hours. People will be deeply moved."

Gibson's company, Icon Productions, did not seek out buyers for the film, but waited to see which suitors came knocking. The studios didn't, apparently. (Fox, which has a first-look deal with Icon, is the only studio that officially passed.) Icon, however, did get interest from small, independent companies without public shareholders or other assets, like music companies and theme parks, that could be hurt by boycotts or protests. Companies "that have nothing to lose," as one executive puts it. The top contender now appears to be Newmarket, which released "Memento." They have made a formal bid, but will not confirm if they have seen the film. Two higher-profile independents, Lions Gate and Miramax, have expressed interest in the film and have asked to see it. They have yet to be invited. The film could prove problematic for Miramax, as its parent company, Disney, dislikes controversy.

Gibson's camp would not comment about the potential sale, beyond saying it could happen in the "near term." It's possible, though remotely, that Icon, which distributes most of Gibson's films in the U.K. and Australia, may opt to put "The Passion" in U.S. theaters itself. Meanwhile, the press surrounding the film--in particular a New Yorker profile that delineated Gibson's rigid religious beliefs--has done some damage to his reputation. While he remains one of the most bankable stars in history, his occasionally strident public statements have not played well in an industry predominantly liberal and significantly Jewish. "People think Mel's crazy now," says one top producer. Adds a studio head, "People feel like his character in 'Lethal Weapon' isn't that far from who he is. It's like, 'Wow, he's way out on a limb'." We should know very shortly who's going to get out there with him.