breaks Hollywood's 10 Commands, by Martin A. Grove
the Hollywood Reporter)
grosses: As saints go, you wouldn't expect a connection
between St. Patrick and "The Passion of the Christ."
this being St. Paddy's Day, you can raise a glass
in his honor anyway since Hollywood's green with envy
over all that boxoffice green Mel Gibson is making
as "Passion" builds from nearly $270 million
now to about $400 million in domestic theatrical grosses.
triumph here compared to his earlier "Braveheart"
success reflects his having broken Hollywood's Ten
Commandments of movie marketing and distribution.
With "Braveheart" in 1995 Gibson did things
conventionally and let Paramount and others finance
the $72 million production, which went on to gross
about $202 million worldwide while winning five Oscars,
including best picture and director. By following
his own path now with "Passion," Gibson
orchestrated a success story that could serve as a
case study for film schools for years to come. Beyond
that, Gibson should profit for years to come since
as a period piece costume drama "Passion"
can enjoy an Easter afterlife in theaters from now
"Passion" will be timely to re-issue theatrically
at Easter for years to come, it has the potential
to wind up as the biggest grossing film in movie history
-- at least if you calculate that record on the basis
of the cumulative gross from multiple releases of
the same film. To do so, it will have to overtake
"Titanic's" roughly $1.8 billion worldwide
total, which seems possible in the future, but isn't
likely on the basis of "Passion's" initial
release. If "Passion" winds up with somewhere
between $1 billion and $1.2 billion worldwide this
time around, it's possible that well planned reissues
down the road could send it sailing past "Titanic."
breaking or bending so many of Hollywood's basic rules
-- studio development executives would probably give
them the punchier name Ten Commands rather than Ten
Commandments -- Gibson showed considerable courage
that's paid off big-time for him. It's doubtful that
he envisioned the level of monetary success the film
has enjoyed or even that money was a driving force
for him. His personal passion for the project seems
very genuine whether one agrees or disagrees with
the specific nature of his religious point of view.
Moreover, given reports of how distributors around
town turned down the chance to release "Passion,"
it's clear that nobody saw this as being the moneymaker
a quick look at the Ten Commands Gibson opted not
to obey and how not doing so helped turn "Passion"
into a blockbuster.
Thou shalt use other people's money to finance your
Hollywood considers anyone who puts his own money
into financing a movie to be a sucker (or, I believe,
in Aramaic "an investor"). The name of the
game is to use other people's money to finance your
movie. Although Hollywood superstars and high profile
filmmakers often talk about pet projects they'd love
to bring to the screen, they almost never dip into
their own bank accounts to make them. If they talked
to their accountants, as Gibson seems to have done,
they'd understand that with their considerable incomes
the tax losses from one failed film would simply offset
other earnings. Of course, if the film didn't fail,
they'd wind up owning the equivalent of a gold mine.
Gibson's case, his personal passion for "Passion"
was so great and apparently so unshared by the Hollywood
community that there was no other way this film would
have gotten made other than with his own money. While
it's unclear whether the $30 million to make "Passion"
came from Gibson's personal bank account or from his
and Bruce Davey's Icon Productions, what is clear
is that the film's boxoffice bonanza will give Gibson
a heavenly return on his investment.
weekend as "Passion" overtook "My Big
Fat Greek Wedding" to become the biggest grossing
independent film ever -- $264.5 million and still
counting vs. "Wedding's" $241.4 million
in domestic theaters -- it brought to mind Tom Hanks
and Rita Wilson, who found "Wedding" when
it was a one-woman Nia Vardalos play in L.A. and believed
in it so much that they got it made as a movie. Had
they self-financed the picture, however, they'd have
seen the sort of staggering profits Gibson is enjoying
from "Passion." In the case of "Wedding,"
however, the bulk of the profits from its $356.5 million
worldwide theatrical gross must have gone to Gold
Circle Films and HBO Films, who put up its $5 million
only did Gibson self-finance the making of "Passion,"
but the film's marketing and distribution costs also
were fronted by Icon. That kept a lid on the distribution
fees paid to Newmarket Films. While Newmarket will
still do very nicely with a fee that's said to be
between 10 and 12 percent of the distributor's gross,
it would have made much more money had it invested
the marketing money.
any event, Gibson put his money where his mouth is
and now he's got something to shout about.
Thou shalt let a good film speak for itself by screening
it early for the media.
recognized from the get-go that screening "Passion"
early wasn't the way to go. If creating controversy
was the key to building awareness of the film, letting
the media have an early look at it couldn't possibly
help. The less people know about something the greater
the controversy over it is likely to be. By refusing
to show "Passion" to the groups that were
insisting on seeing it, Gibson kept everybody riled
up enough to provide fuel for the media frenzy over
whether "Passion" is or isn't anti-Semitic.
of generating dull television reports or newspaper
articles with one set of opinions balancing another
set of opinions about the film and its message, the
resulting media coverage focused on how incensed people
were that Gibson wouldn't let them have an early look
at his movie. The more people were told they couldn't
see it, the more they wanted to see it. By keeping
just about everyone in the dark Gibson accomplished
a lot more than he would have by doing the usual round
of opinion maker screenings in key cities across the
country. If he'd shown the film to religious groups
in major markets, some would undoubtedly have said
it wasn't as damaging as they thought it was going
to be. That, in turn, would not have helped make the
public want to see it.
unclear, by the way, whether the film has actually
had an effect one way or the other on anti-Semitism.
Reading Tuesday's Drudge Report.com, one of my favorite
Web sites for breaking news and coverage of the media,
I found a link to Houston TV station KPRC that was
headlined "Survey: 'The Passion' May Be Reducing
Anti-Semitism." The story said that, "a
new poll suggests fears that (the film) would trigger
anti-Semitism were unwarranted. A nationwide survey
conducted for the Institute for Jewish and Community
Research finds that 83 percent of Americans familiar
with the film say it's made them neither more nor
less likely to blame today's Jews for Jesus' crucifixion."
KPRC story added that 9 percent of those polled said
the film "made them less likely to blame today's
Jews, while less than 2 percent said they're more
likely to fault modern Jews or Jewish institutions."
Not knowing anything about who did the research and
how it was conducted, it's hard to evaluate this report.
Nonetheless, it certainly does contrast with media
opinions before "Passion" opened that it
would have a devastating effect on Christian-Jewish
relations. This more neutral kind of reporting would
not have created as much want-to-see for the movie
as resulted from Gibson keeping it under wraps pre-opening.
Thou shalt keep network television advertising at
the heart of a film's marketing campaign.
television advertising may be more expensive than
ever and may deliver less audience than it used to,
but Hollywood marketers still love it and plan their
media campaigns around it. When major studios commit
$25 million or more to launching a movie, network
TV gets the lion's share of that money. In the case
of "Passion," Gibson didn't have that kind
of money to spend on marketing nor did he choose to
pour it down the network drain.
grassroots marketing effort that Gibson undertook
for "Passion" initially on his own and later
through Newmarket Films was a lean one that relied
on reaching the film's core audience of Christian
moviegoers and potential moviegoers by getting local
church groups to promote seeing the film. Group ticket
sales at, presumably, discounted prices were a key
element in this campaign. Getting the right core audience
to see the film first so they could then spread favorable
word of mouth was a smart approach, especially because
it didn't require network TV spots.
"Passion" has now grossed so much money
that even $50 million in opening and pre-opening marketing
expenses would already have been recouped, the fact
is that when Gibson was devising his campaign strategy
no one anticipated anything resembling this level
of success. Gibson was smart to resist the temptation
to write a check for, say, another $15 million to
try to duplicate a major studio campaign revolving
around network TV spots.
Thou shalt hold press junkets because they're the
best way to generate publicity.
done so many press junkets that he, of all people,
must know how ineffective they really are. By bringing
together in New York or L.A. the usual crowd of jaded
journalists from across the country and turning them
loose for four or five minutes apiece on the film's
stars, the resulting coverage is as bland and uniform
as you could possibly generate. A press junket for
"Passion" would have had Gibson sitting
in a hotel room chair with a poster for the film on
an easel beside him and a plant on a table behind
him looking like it was growing out of his head. Whatever
answers Gibson might have given to the typically inane
questions that get asked at such junkets, they would
not have driven people to see his movie the way television
reports about the controversy raging over the then
unseen film did.
Thou shalt honor thy superstars by paying them big
bucks to generate big opening weekend ticket sales.
Gibson paid Jim Caviezel to star in "Passion"
has got to be a lot less than Hollywood typically
pays Gibson to star in a movie. Gibson didn't turn
to superstar casting to make his own movie, however,
because he knew high profile stars weren't the answer
for this picture.
Gibson, for instance, had cast himself to play Christ,
moviegoers would have sat there and instead of being
drawn into the film they'd have been thinking about
how that's Mel Gibson under all that bloody body makeup.
Bottom line, by skipping star casting Gibson was able
to bring his film in for around $30 million. Add one
superstar to that budget and you'd wind up with around
$60 million, figuring a $25 million salary and another
$5 million in related costs for the entourage and
perks that accompany big stars these days.
Thou shalt avoid R ratings, subtitles, strange languages,
blood & gore and graphic violence because they
limit a film's audience.
nearly $270 million in grosses already under its belt,
"Passion" is poised to become the biggest
R rated film ever this weekend. That record will fall
as soon as "Passion" passes $281.6 million,
which "The Matrix Reloaded" did domestically
conventional wisdom in Hollywood has for years been
that R ratings aren't so great because they serve
to limit a film's audience by excluding people under
the age of 17 (unless they're accompanied by a parent
or guardian). Gibson clearly rejected the idea of
writing and filming "Passion" so that it
would land a PG-13 rating. That just wasn't going
to be the movie he wanted to make and, to his credit,
he refused to compromise. He put his money where his
mouth was and took the risk of failing.
"Passion" is ready to do a network television
sale, Gibson will have to confront the film's R rating
and see if there is some way to deal with it so that
it can be shown on broadcast TV. Quite possibly at
that time he will be comfortable saying that while
he didn't compromise at all in terms of the film's
R rating for theaters, he wants to see it play now
to the broadest possible television audience and,
therefore, will do what it takes to make it acceptable
to be aired. In this post-Janet Jackson world of five-second
delays, Gibson might be able to turn to the FCC for
some special dispensation that would permit a late
night telecast of his R rated film (or, perhaps, of
a somewhat edited version of the movie).
also included in his film a number of elements that
Hollywood typically doesn't embrace. Subtitles, for
instance, are generally thought to be a major limitation
on how much business a film is likely to do in the
U.S. because American moviegoers are considered uncomfortable
with the idea of having to divert their eyes from
following the action on screen to reading subtitles.
The most successful subtitled domestic theatrical
release, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,"
grossed about $128.1 million in 2000 and it had the
advantage of having many strong martial arts action
scenes. Clearly, by using subtitles in "Passion"
Gibson didn't hurt ticket sales.
foreign languages are also thought to be a turn-off
to American moviegoers because they have a kind of
gibberish sound to ears that aren't accustomed to
hearing them. French, Italian and Spanish, by comparison,
at least sound vaguely familiar to moviegoers who
don't speak those languages because they've probably
seen films by directors from those countries in the
past. By having his characters speak Aramaic and Latin,
Gibson gave moviegoers dialogue that is very strange
sounding to most ears. Nonetheless, it hasn't kept
people away from seeing "Passion."
& gore and graphic violence on the screen are
also considered factors that limit a film's audience
appeal, especially to women. Here, too, Gibson opted
not to restrain himself and wound up doing what he
felt the picture required in the way of violence.
You don't have to agree with him to acknowledge that
he did have the courage of his convictions.
Gibson wound up paying the price for all that violence?
Actually, not at all. On the one hand, the film's
original core audience of devout Christians was willing
to accept the blood & gore and violence in "Passion"
because it rang true in terms of the story. Whether
they were forced to look away from the screen throughout
the film isn't something we have statistics on at
the moment. On the other hand, the film is said to
be attracting a new audience demographic now of young
males who happen to love onscreen blood & gore
and are attracted to violent images. They usually
find those elements in horror genre films, but now
they're finding them in "Passion" just as
they probably did in the graphic torture sequences
in Gibson's Oscar-winning "Braveheart" a
few years ago.
Thou shalt screen your film at festivals to attract
a strong independent distributor.
was smart to resist any temptations to unveil "Passion"
at a major film festival. As a superstar long associated
with the world of big-budget mainstream Hollywood
movies, he'd have been in the wrong world at Sundance.
With it having been quite difficult for "Passion"
to achieve theatrical distribution in France, it's
hard to believe it would have been the kind of film
that would have been embraced at Cannes. It's hard
to picture acquisitions executives for all those scrappy,
studio-owned "independents" rushing up the
aisle after viewing 10 minutes of the film to corner
Gibson in the lobby and make him a distribution offer
he couldn't refuse.
Thou shalt rely on a platform release in New York
and L.A. to get word of mouth going.
Gibson had gotten a studio distribution deal the likelihood
is he would have been pressured into a platform release
of "Passion" at a handful of theaters in
New York and Los Angeles. Hollywood believes you get
word of mouth going by starting in a couple of theaters
and letting influential critics and the film's initial
audiences spread the word. In the case of "Passion,"
the kind of buzz that would have been generated would
almost certainly have been the wrong kind.
was right to figure that the U.S. media centers of
New York and L.A. wouldn't give "Passion"
the kind of reception it needed to survive. That response
could only come from the heartland where the core
audience for the movie could be found. By doing things
his own way, Gibson avoided getting clobbered on the
coasts, which would have wound up costing him a wide
release for the movie.
Thou shalt covet promotional partners in fast food,
fashion, cosmetics, toys and video games because they
add big dollars to your marketing campaign and generate
awareness for your film.
important as Hollywood thinks fast food and other
tie-in promotional campaigns are, they were clearly
unsuitable for a film like "Passion." How
much they actually contribute to the success of mainstream
releases is open for debate, as well. Nonetheless,
Gibson perceived that these were things to stay away
from. The movie's staggering success proves, however,
that you can do quite well without having a film's
title plastered all over buckets of fried chicken
or fast food trays.
Thou shalt control your destiny as a filmmaker by
worshipping the golden idols of Wall Street to raise
money for your own major studio.
the greatest temptation that Gibson appears to have
resisted is the one to springboard off a film's success
by tapping Wall Street for the money to make more
films through one's own major studio. The dream of
starting your own studio and achieving parity with
the established majors is one that's seduced other
successful filmmakers before.
however, apparently has the best of both worlds. With
his investment in "Passion" having paid
off, he can now finance the production and marketing
of any similar scale movie he ever wants to make.
By doing so, he'll once again be the sole owner of
his movie. If he can get lightning to strike again
at the boxoffice, he can take in another ton of money
-- like the $350 million to $500 million in profits
"Passion" seems likely to bring him -- and
have the satisfaction of having done it on his own
Grove is seen Mondays at 9:30 a.m., PT on CNN FN's
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