Moved to Tears: Audiences Are Passionate About Mel Gibsonís Film

By Erin Hayes
February 24, 2004

A T L A N T A, Feb. 24, 2004 - It takes something extraordinary to fill an Atlanta movie theater to capacity on a rainy, chilly week night in February. It takes an Event. A Blockbuster. A Hollywood Mega-Hit.

Few in the movie industry believed that a movie in which actors speak only in Aramaic, Latin and Greek, a movie focusing almost solely on the 12 most difficult hours of Christ's life on Earth — and in excruciating detail at that — could approach the break-even point, let alone "hit" status.

But it is. At Atlanta's Magic Johnson Multiplex 12-screen theater Monday, nearly 3,000 people poured in to see The Passion of the Christ. And they not only showed up to see it, they watched it with a hushed intensity uncharacteristic for most movie audiences. Then they poured from the theater, many weeping, some sobbing, and most singing its praises.

And that included a group of teenage boys who looked more likely to attend a Matrix movie than a film about Jesus.

"It's powerful," one piped up. Asked if the intensity of the movie — the unsparing depiction of the brutality leveled against Christ — was hard to take, he answered, "Like they say, it's the Passion. It touches your heart."

Nearby, an elderly woman wept for several minutes, overwhelmed by the experience. As her family surrounded her, she clasped her hands together, whispering aloud, "Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus."

Fervor Sweeps the Nation
This kind of reaction is not isolated to Atlanta audiences. In Miami, Kansas City, Little Rock, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Shreveport, La., theaters are selling out tickets for the movie. Many have shifted the number of screens allotted to other movies to make more room for The Passion.

And advance ticket sales are through the roof, according to Art Levitt, president of Fandango, the nation's largest online and phone movie ticketing service. "Advanced ticket sales for The Passion of the Christ positions the film as the second best-selling movie in the company's history at this point in the sales cycle," he said. "Clearly, the anticipation surrounding this movie has encouraged movie-goers — in top urban markets as well as smaller markets in the South and Midwest — to purchase their tickets in advance for guaranteed access to their preferred show time."

Brian Fuson, a box office analyst for The Hollywood Reporter, said that in 19 years of monitoring the box office, he has not seen anything quite like this. "I've never seen a film go from such obscurity to such front-page tremendous buzz," he said. "It's fair to say right now this film is all the talk in Hollywood."

A Surprise Hit

Many are trying to analyze just how — and why — this movie appears to be on its way to blockbuster status.

That, however, seems obvious to many movie-goers, who say the movie is filling theaters because they see it as more than just a movie.

Patrice Williams of Atlanta initially came to see it out of curiosity, wondering why people seemed so affected by it. As she exited the theater, tears were streaming down her face. Asked for her reaction, she needed a moment to control her crying.

"It wasn't what I expected," she said.

She had been told the movie was intense, violent, overwhelming. But, she said, she wasn't prepared for the effect this two-hour depiction of Christ's suffering — and sacrifice — would have on her. Although she said she is a Christian, she had never fully realized how terrible those last 12 hours were for Jesus. The movie made it real.

"It's profound," she said, her voice trembling. "It's beyond words, beyond anything that I can come up with."

And responses like that, box office analysts say, are likely to guarantee a huge opening weekend for The Passion of the Christ. But what about after this weekend? Will moviegoers still feel compelled to flood into theaters after the initial attention subsides?

Don't ask a box office analyst. Few are willing to predict anything about The Passion of the Christ, a movie that, so far, has defied nearly all conventional movie-making wisdom.

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