A Passionate pitch to red-state audiences
Father Sibley posted on his blog the link to a map that lets you see where Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST will be playing when it opens Ash Wednesday. A poster in his comment field then noted the lack of theaters in Manhattan booking the film, just one, with some in the other boroughs, but still a surprisingly small number for the nation’s cultural capital, considering that THE PASSION is getting the full 2,000-screen opening nationwide.
So I looked at my own metro area, and found the same pattern in the listings for DC, Virginia and Maryland. THE PASSION will only open in one theater in Washington DC and in one theater in the biggest and closest counties of Northern Virginia (Arlington and Fairfax). Offsetting that some is the fact it will open in 6 theaters in suburban Maryland (Prince George’s and Montgomery counties) and eight in the farther-out NoVa counties like Prince William, Loudon and Stafford. And there’s the possibility of multiple screens obviously — the particular DC theater is a 7-plex; the Arlington facility has 12 screens. But for comparison’s sake, here are some Virginia population sizes: 2 theaters in DC/Arlington/Fairfax — population of 1.7 million; 3 in Richmond — population of 200,000; 2 in Charlottesville — city proper, 45,000.
According to the same map, THE PASSION will open in 5 (five) theaters in Los Angeles (scroll down or use the search box above, on the PASSION site page) and also in 5 (five) theaters in … (drumroll, please) … Alaska. I didn’t search for any of the numerous LA suburbs (Adam?), but Los Angeles proper is still an awfully big city (3.7 million — almost six times the population of Alaska) and somewhat important in the film industry one would think, that the city itself suffices for the point of my comparison. I checked the listing for New York state and found 8 theaters in New York’s five boroughs (though I don’t know the region’s geography well enough to judge the number for NYC suburbs). Or exactly the number of theaters (8) as the Tidewater corner of Southeastern Virginia — Norfolk, Chesapeake, Newport News, Virginia Beach, Suffolk.
This is an unconventional booking strategy and is a clear indication of how Gibson plans to make a box-office hit — from red-state audiences with minimal reliance on the blue-state metro areas; hence the months of courting Christian preachers and cold-shouldering the ADL and the opinion-leaders in journalism and film criticism.
(Idle thought #1: Does the mass American moviegoing public realize that THE PASSION has subtitles, something they have hated and punished at the box office since the birth of the talkies?)
(Idle thought #2: Have there been any critics screenings yet, less than a month before opening? Enough pro critics read this blog that I know that if my guess that there have been none is wrong, I’ll be corrected).
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN used a not-dissimilar marketing strategy. It opened in late September on a few dozen screens in the South and Midwest, and concentrated on smaller and medium-sized cities for weeks before it played any of the country’s biggest Metro areas (Washington and Los Angeles got the film in mid-November; as far as I can tell, it has still never played New York or Chicago). But GOSPEL is a small film that has never played on more than 113 screens nationwide in any given week, so that was a traditional “rollout” strategy; it just reversed the customary order for the bigger and smaller cities. If GOSPEL were to have become a hit, it would have been in the MY BIG FAT JUDEAN EXECUTION mould. But dissing the biggest cities is just not done by a 2,000-screen-opening-week movie.
This booking strategy also tells me that Gibson’s distributors are preparing for a critical drubbing from the nation’s film-critic establishment, much of which is liberal or radical and based in New York, Los Angeles and a few other big metro areas. Playing THE PASSION relatively little in those cities seems like a way to immunize the film from their expected reaction. Or as making provision with defenses and barriers against fortuna, which I compare to one of those raging rivers …
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