Perhaps the one thing that divided the nation more than the presidential election last year was Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. But anyone who'd doubted the box office appeal of a biblical epic performed largely in Aramaic need only do the arithmetic. The film racked up $120 million in the first five days of release last spring and more than $600 million to date, making it the highest-grossing R-rated movie in history -- not to mention the best-selling indie flick ever (take that, Harvey Weinstein). And the DVD version sold 2.5 million copies during the first six hours on the market.
How did this all happen to a movie that had no major studio backing or fast-food tie-ins (a McManna Meal, anyone?), a movie that its director, producer, and co-writer, Mel Gibson, had to finance with his own $25 million? As it turns out, businessman Gibson's lethal weapon is his killer instinct. "Quite simply, Mel's a genius," says Steven Feldstein, senior marketing VP at 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, which released the Passion DVD (Fox had passed on releasing the film theatrically). "He's a true creative visionary and doesn't waiver in his vision." So when it came time for promoting the DVD, Fox didn't waiver from Gibson's vision either. "Mel established the tone of the marketing campaign. It had to be respectful. So our natural inclination to have a screamed-from-the-rooftops Barnum & Bailey kind of hype was tempered," says Feldstein, who instead quietly spread the word through churches and e-mails to Christian households.
"Mel, being an entrepreneur who is not afraid to take risks, was willing to take a chance with us."
-Bob Siemon, a Passion licensee
"Mel wasn't about commercializing The Passion," adds jewelry designer Bob Siemon, who is the film's official bauble maker and has sold about three million Passion pieces, including 250,000 of the line's signature pewter nail necklaces. That is to say, Gibson certainly wasn't praying for more pennies from heaven. "When we were negotiating the license, Mel, I'll never forget, sat back in his chair and said he didn't want to do anything with respect to products," says Siemon. "Then we showed him how we wanted to promote the movie in a true sense by creating jewelry that would be sold in Christian bookstores, not by putting out a bunch of junky stuff at Wal-Mart. And Mel, being an entrepreneur who's not afraid to take risks, was willing to take a chance with us."
All this accidental or organic entrepreneurship has led to Gibson reportedly taking home more than $500 million. Ever the good parishioner, he has donated more than $2 million to a traditionalist Catholic church he and his family attend near Malibu. And he's given $10 million to two hospitals in Los Angeles that serve sick and disadvantaged children. Now, Gibson's preparing another bold departure -- this time from the big screen to the small screen, producing TV shows, like the secular coming-of-age drama Clubhouse, through his Icon Productions. But don't expect him to lose his religion for long. Word is that he's planning to make a movie about the Maccabees and the story of Hanukkah. Can't you just hear the repentant studio execs declaring "I (TM) Maccabees"?