Engaging CultureChristian Media

The “Passion Playbook” in the New Hollywood

For all the readers who responded with great comments about why “The Nativity” failed, here’s a fascinating look from writer and cultural commentator Mark Joseph. He’s opened it up to a much bigger issue of how to repeat the success of “The Passion of the Christ.” Let me know what you think:

The ‘Passion’ Playbook: The 10+ Commandments of the New Hollywood
Tuesday , December 05, 2006
By Mark Joseph

In a recent column, nationally syndicated religion columnist Terry Mattingly cited Hollywood executives who believe they are following what they term the “Passion Playbook” with the release of the film “The Nativity Story.”

As the dust settles on this box office disappointment, Hollywood veterans are again likely to use the film’s failure as another indication that the enormous business that Mel Gibson’s film did was a fluke that can never be repeated.

But to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: I knew “The Passion” … and “The Nativity” is no “Passion.”
To be sure, there is indeed a “Passion” playbook, which unfortunately has not been followed since it rocked the box office in 2004.

For Hollywood executives who seem to have learned many of the wrong lessons and ignored most of the right ones, here is the real “Passion” playbook, which if followed correctly is guaranteed to produce box office magic.

1) Have a major star associated with the project. Mel Gibson may only have been the director, but he was the player in the “Passion” saga. Media and the interest of the American public nearly always revolve around a person. It’s almost impossible to create a box office sensation unless there is a personality who can draw interest to the project. He or she must be willing to travel to meet faith community leaders across the country and pitch the movie.

2) Whenever possible, choose a story that is already well-known and loved. That way, you won’t have to spend months educating the public about who the character is or what the story is about. People knew “The Passion” was about Jesus Christ and the greatest story ever told. They didn’t have to be sold on it. He had strong name ID.

3) Spend some money on the production. Gibson spent $25 million. That’s good. People, even deeply religious people, want to see that real money has been spent on a film. There are exceptions to this. “Facing The Giants,” for example, was made for $100,000 and earned $10 million. In general, however, the faithful are sick of being condescended to with low-budget schlock.

4) Spend at least a year taking the film around the country to as many leaders of as many groups as possible. Studios are famous for refusing to show a film until just before it’s released, but news travels at a much slower speed in faith-oriented circles. Many traditionalists, especially older ones, don’t get their news from “Entertainment Tonight” but rather from their Aunt Helen who heard about it from her friend who read it in a newsletter published by a religious group six months ago.

If your movie is coming out in December, have a rough cut ready in January and begin showing it around the country to every group you can think of. Show it early; show it often.

“Narnia” did a fraction of the business it could have because studio executives refused to show the film early enough. In contrast, Gibson showed his film to key leaders six months before its release and solicited feedback from them and even made some changes as a result. Translation: Thousands of Americans considered themselves to have been co-producers on the film because they had given the director their “notes.”

5) Include in your cast an actor who is a person of faith and well-known to the Christian community to play a role (even a small one) who will then be your ambassador to the faith community who can appear on faith-oriented programs to talk about the film.

6) Use an ancient language and include lots of violence — just kidding. “The Passion” was a hit in spite of the subtitles and relentless brutality. The faithful loved the film so much that they were willing to read the subtitles and the violence was purposeful and thus meaningful. But in nearly every other case, these devices will not work and shouldn’t be tried.

Millions of Americans go to movies to be uplifted. They see enough violence on the evening news and if they wanted to hear a foreign language they’d live in Europe. While we’re on the subject, lose the crude language unless the story collapses without it. No one has ever left a movie complaining that the language wasn’t foul enough; plenty leave early because they don’t want to hear their favorite deity mocked.

7) Welcome controversy. A full year before the film was released, Gibson was on TV arguing that the New York Times was attacking him. Most viewers didn’t know what he was talking about, but his marketing campaign was in full swing. News of the MPAA attacking the film “Facing the Giants” for its religious content hit the film a full four months before its release, driving interest in the film.

8) Make a film that appeals to both secular-leaning Americans and devout Christians simultaneously. Yes, it can be done. Polling indicated that “Passion” viewers were about half evangelical Christians and half more secular Americans, a surprising result considering the theme of the story. Yet, it appealed to different people for different reasons. Some wanted to see what the controversy was about. Others loved the hero. Others saw it as a work of art. Some viewers enjoyed “Narnia” because it was about a brave lion. Others saw their savior Jesus Christ in the lion.

9) Entertain first, send a message second. The right to send a message or teach a lesson is earned first by being entertaining. If it’s not entertaining, it will bomb. No amount of earnestness will save it.

10) Look to the Christian basement for stories. Hollywood as we know it is bankrupt of story ideas. How else to explain “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Bad News Bears” and “Bewitched”? In contrast, there are thousands of interesting stories in the basement of Christendom that have been gathering dust over the last 2,000 years that are waiting to be told. In addition to “The Passion,” three 50-year-old stories recently made it to the big screen: “Narnia,” “Lord of the Rings” and “End of the Spear,” and these have been among the best-loved Christian tales that were quietly cheered on in faith communities around the country.

These are the tip of the iceberg. Since this community long believed movies to be evil, very few of their favorite stories have even made it to film. There are thousands more where those came from and they’re gathering dust in the basement waiting to be adapted for film.

Bonus: If you have obeyed the first 10 commandments, congratulations, now you must take the release wide — onto 3,000-plus screens. If you don’t, you are sending a message that you’re not confident about your film and people smell fear a mile away.

Forget building momentum like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” did. That will not work, you must make sure that the film is available all across the country to ensure maximum first-weekend turnout and to empower viewers to “vote” with their pocketbooks.

During an early “Passion” screening, one prominent Hollywood executive actually told Gibson he should put the film in theaters for free since people were unlikely to pay the money to see it, but would buy the DVD instead. Gibson wisely rejected the ridiculous suggestion because he understood that the devout wanted to “vote” with their $8 and send old Hollywood a message. That “voting” will only be possible if there is a “precinct” nearby and if the message can be sent on the first weekend — the moment of maximum impact.

Follow those 10+ commandments and “Passion”-like box office numbers can be a reality

Mark Joseph is the author of “Faith, God & Rock ‘n’ Roll,” editor of Pop Goes Religion and founder of the MJM Group. He produced the rock soundtrack for “The Passion of The Christ” and worked in development and/or marketing on films such as “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Ray,” “Because of Winn-Dixie,” “Holes” and “Facing the Giants.”

Related Articles


  1. I agree with most of the points made in this article, but I think the main reason The Nativity failed was because it wasn’t an outstanding film. It was merely OK, and without a ton of marketing, an OK film will generally flop.

    It is possible to market a bad film to within an inch of its life, cover costs on opening weekend, then for the box office to fall off spectacularly as the audience realises its rubbish. However, true hits have “legs” as word of mouth spreads.

    Its also worth looking at the top ten highest grossing films of all time ADJUSTED FOR INFLATION as this is a much truer reflection of how popular a film was. I think the top five is something like 1) Gone with the Wind, 2) Snow White and the Seven Dwarves 3) The Sound of Music 4) Star Wars and 5)ET – all favourites of mine. The most recent films in the top 10 are The Return of the King, which thoroughly deserves a place, and Titanic, which doesn’t (in my not at all humble opinion).

  2. I found Mark's list interesting. Although I agree with most of it, I would add that not only would a "name actor" help the movie, but especially one who truly believes in the project himself. Mel Gibson had a burning desire to make "The Passion", and it shows. Other movies like "Nativity" or "End of the Spear" were very well made, but it became obvious in real life that the actors didn't necessarily believe in the story or message themselves. I believe they still had an impact on viewers, but in a different way than the Passion did.

    On paper, "Facing the Giants" should have failed. Without real actors, production experience or money, it seemed doomed before the first frame was shot. However, we did cover it with prayer from the start and show it to as many leaders as we could. We tried to tell a story people could relate to, but one that also encouraged them to take a deeper step of faith. In a sense, we had to live the message of the movie, that with God all things are possible. Like the team in the film, their senario was unrealistic, but God still provided a way. In real life, it was unrealistic to think we would get theatrical distribution, and even if we did, that anybody would show up to watch it. Yet here we are, and God has done it.

    We are striving to improve every aspect of production, and have learned many lessons from this experience, but the most important one is to give the Lord your all, even when critics blast away, and let him take your five loaves and two fish and feed thousands.

  3. I think what Alex sais is very true. The Christian audience needs to know that the people "behind" the film are Christians and passionate about the project. I don't think a posterchild is enough by itself. The fact that Mel had to spend his own money to make this film because the studios wouldn't help is what spurred on the excitement. The distrust between the Christian audience and hollywood is deep, so the fact that the studios wouldn't originally help him made it more attractive…If the people behind the scenes (director, producer, ect) are known Christians it will thrive using that formula.

     Alex's movie had no name actors, but we knew Alex's intentions were pure and that he was a good Christian man, so it was the filmmaker, not the actors that put the Christian audience at ease…just some thoughts



  4. I think these are great observations for developing a "how to cover your bases" approach. I don't think comparing films and why they did or did not "break out" takes us anywhere. Every film has a life of its own and would never have been made without someone being extremely passionate. Its a miracle whenever a film gets made. A scripture that comes to my mind is "Isaiah 55:11
    So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. In essence a film is like a statement. some are clear and easy to understand and sometimes they are cloaked in mystery either by intent or bad film making. However they all accomplish something. Maybe not the return the film maker or his investor wanted or even the intended message never became clear. But be sure it accomplished something and not necessarily good. We are living in a great time to enter the cultural debate. I assure you what works for one of us promotionaly might not work for another. Ultimately God will cause the increase, or not. Each of us must do all in our power to promote and discuss as well as be faithful to the role and stories we believe God is asking of us. I pray I can help encourage others to join the fray and lend my voice to theirs when I understand and believe in what they have communicated.

  5. Ignore everything in Joseph's article except point seven. Here's why…

    It baffles me why there must be a secret formula that, if followed, will lead every movie to success. This idea is unbiblical as it's rooted in arrogance and pride. Blockbuster success is less about the product and more about the audience.

    The Passion had two audiences: (1) Christian and (2) secular. Each audience attended for one or more reasons: (1) spiritual motive and/or (2) entertainment motive and/or (3) curiosity motive. In large part the secular audience saw the film because of the anti-Semetic controversy in the media and therefore acted out of curiosity.

    The largest audience for any wide release is the secular audience. The secular audience saw The Passion out of curiosity. They did not go for entertainment (The Passion did not bring "pleasure or delight" [definition 1a from the Oxford English Dictionary for "entertain") or out of a spiritual motive (by definition, the secular audience would not have a spiritual motive, although, it should be argued that God was working in the hearts of a percentage of the secular audience [hence the evangelistic value of the film]).

    If the largest audience for The Passion is secular and the largest motive for the secular audience is curiosity it follows that the success of The Passion was due to the controversy rather than story or production value. There is no blockbuster success without the secular audience. To be sure, it is physically impossible for the Christian audience alone to produce the grosses necessary for blockbuster consideration. The Passion's success lies in the marriage of the secular and Christian audiences. If there is to be any Passion Playbook, it has nothing to do with the product and everything to do with audience.


Leave a Reply

Back to top button

Adblock Detected

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker