The Greatest Story Ever Sold

By Helen Razer
February 25, 2004

Is that a stigmata on Mel Gibson's hand or is he just making a theological point to James Caviezel?

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ might raise questions about his sanity, but it confirms his genius for marketing, reports Helen Razer.

Mel Gibson's first serious foray into splatter genre cinema, The Passion of the Christ, opens on thousands of screens worldwide today.

Described by one critic as "fetishistically violent" and by dozens of biblical scholars as anti-Semitic or just plain historically wrong, there's no escaping a project the auteur himself once identified as a potential "career killer".

This spiritual Ishtar, financed by Gibson, seemed doomed to fail: it contains no stars; it's not in English and the likelihood that it would be as good as the book was always remote.

Yet, media observers are predicting that Passion will enjoy enviable success in its opening weekend.

"People think I'm crazy, and maybe I am," Gibson said in September 2002 at a news conference in Rome before starting production.

"But maybe I'm a genius."

Whatever the case, modest Mel, who wrote, directed and produced this hulking gore-fest, is set to make a profit befitting a mastermind.

Why? By many accounts, this product is difficult to endure. If 10-minute-long flagellation burlesques don't send you home annoyed, there's a good chance that dealing with the sound of a rather guttural dead language as interpreted by someone with a face-full of special wound effects make-up will.

Passion should not be an easy product to shift. Yet it is poised to turn a remarkable profit. Marketing graduates of the future will almost certainly study the success of Gibson's cultural warfare and agree that this is the greatest story ever sold.

Gibson's film company, Icon Productions, may be exemplary to students of guerilla marketing.

Last month, a widespread and persistent rumour arose that Pope John Paul II was so moved by the flick that he uttered "It is as it was" after the credits rolled. This was later denied by the Vatican. The Holy Father, said a secretary, did not give this nor any other feature the Papal thumbs up.

"I don't believe that all Catholic Traditionalists are necessarily insane".

But Icon has welcomed large group bookings made by clergy. Its Australian website states that the company will liaise "with cinemas on behalf of individual churches" to ensure seating.

The film's merchandise includes a natty Nail Pendant. Just like the ones Jesus wore at Easter. Made of pewter and available in two sizes, each with Isaiah 53:5 inscribed on the side.

Much classier was the appearance of a Chevrolet at the 2004 Daytona 500 featuring a special Passion paint scheme.

"I got a kick out of the NASCAR stock car hood. I always suspected that Jesus loved hot rodding, and this only confirms it," says freelance journalist Christopher Noxon from his in-laws' home in Los Angeles.

Noxon's interest in publicity strategies deployed by Gibson for Passion is quite personal. For the better part of a year, Noxon has functioned as one of Icon Productions most successful marketing implements. His role in the relentless promotion of Passion is curious and complex.

This is the guy who first shed a little light on Mel's faith, Catholic Traditionalism, and the Gibson-financed Malibu Church, the Holy Family.

He rose to national prominence last year when he shed a little more light on the peccadilloes of one of the Catholic Traditionalist movement's more vocal commentators, Hutton Gibson, Mel's father.

The freelance journalist, to use Mel's own analogy in his recent conversation with US journalist Diana Sawyer, is the very same who first tried "to drive a wedge between me and my father".

In stirring up publicity for Passion, Mel has been eager to make enemies. (Of New York Times columnist Frank Rich, Gibson was reported as saying: "I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick ... I want to kill his dog.") Noxon can lay legitimate claim to being the first "enemy" accused by Mel of attempting to discredit his faith and his film's pro-Christian message.

Just how was Noxon initially drawn into playing Lucifer to Mel's marketing martyr?

"My Dad retired a few years ago and bought a house in the countryside near LA. He was out hiking one day and he saw some surveyors' stakes," Noxon says.

"(Dad) is part of a local neighbourhood group that looked at new developments, mainly big tracts of mini malls and such. (He) set up a meeting with the developers and found they were called the A.P. Reilly Foundation, a non-profit group. He was curious about it and asked some questions. They said it was (run by) "a very spiritual figure on the world's stage". They wouldn't name the benefactor.

"I ran the tax information about A.P. Reilly and it turns out A.P. Reilly is the name of Mel Gibson's deceased mother."

Noxon learned that Gibson financed a church that "didn't seem like garden-variety Catholicism".

"At the time, I thought, 'That's an interesting celebrity titbit', but it really wasn't anything I was inclined to write about."

"(Then), news of the movie percolated out of Italy and then I found out about Hutton Gibson while poking around on the internet."

Noxon felt he had the makings of a story and successfully pitched to The New York Times.

While Noxon was preparing the article for press, he attempted to contact Gibson several times through publicist Alan Nierob. Repeated requests for interview explained that the article sought to explore Gibson's faith within the context of his Passion movie project.

Noxon requested that Mel discuss his faith "explicitly, so there's no misunderstanding". "They ignored that letter. So I just went about interviewing people. Then I located Hutton Gibson down in Texas and he invited me to visit him. I spent the weekend with him. I went down, I interviewed him and clearly it was pretty explosive stuff. I came back to LA and wrote a letter saying that I had spoken to Hutton, other members of the Traditionalist community and that I had attended a service at Mel's Church."

Noxon interviewed Gibson's father early in 2003. With doddery zeal, Papa Gibson questioned the veracity of the Holocaust, denied that Al Qaeda hijackers had anything to do with the September 11 attacks and called the Second Vatican Council "a Masonic plot backed by the Jews".

"I wrote to Mel's people and said I've interviewed the father and I wish you'd weigh in. I included some quotes from the father, expecting to get a public statement if not a direct interview. Instead, I got an eight-page single-spaced letter threatening to sue me."

None of Noxon's investigations had been published when the cease-and-desist novella arrived on his doorstep. After shock from the legal volley wore off and he was assured by The New York Times that his "ass" would be covered, Noxon resumed work on his piece.

A week or so later, Noxon turned on the FOX News program The O'Reilly Factor only to find himself being directly addressed by Gibson. This, says Noxon, "was the first big public explosion".

"It was insane. I was sitting at home in my pyjamas, gobsmacked. There was some horrified screaming and jumping around. I couldn't take it in."

Noxon, his piece still unpublished, was called by anchor Bill O'Reilly a "slimy hit man for the left".

"I really wanted to put that on a T shirt," Noxon says.

During the interview, which became fodder for news programs, Noxon says, "Mel looks into the camera and he raises his eyebrows and says, 'Watch out!'. It's so cheesy."

One has to wonder about the upshot of a threat, however theatrical, made by Mad Max himself. "It was deeply surreal. It was very strange. But also kind of cool," he says.

The story Is the Pope Catholic Enough? appeared in the New York Times. Noxon "kept waiting for the summons to arrive". It didn't. A year on, Noxon is not too anxious, figuring there are too many targets.

On the eve of the film's release, Noxon observes that "the primary reason the movie is going to open so big is all the publicity".

"So much publicity and so much controversy and now everyone wants to know what the big deal is about. Every evangelical minister in the country is publicising from the pulpit."

Noxon is ambivalent about his own role in fanning the flames of debate. He is uncertain if Gibson's reaction represents radical paranoia or acute marketing savvy. So, is Mel a genius, or is he crazy? Noxon is unsure.

"I should make the point," says Noxon, "that I didn't ever intend to write the story 'Mel's a loony Christian'. I don't believe that all Catholic Traditionalists are necessarily insane. I don't even know that Mel Gibson is insane."

Perhaps, theorises Noxon, "all of this has been a planned publicity stunt. And, if so, it was a master stroke."

The Passion of the Christ (MA) is on general release from today.

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