Are studios shunning Mel Gibson's ''Passion''? No major Hollywood film distributor has offered to release the controversial movie

By Gary Susman
October 07, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Even without the surrounding controversy, Mel Gibson’s ”The Passion” would be a tough sell — an extremely violent historical epic shot in two ancient tongues (Latin and Aramaic) and starring no household-name actors. The controversy, however, seems to have ensured that no major Hollywood studio will touch the movie, Newsweek reports. ”It’s not worth the aggravation,” one studio head told the magazine. ”Even if it doesn’t deserve it, it’s going to be used as a political football,” said another.

As a historical analogy, Newsweek reports, studios cite the last controversial movie about the Crucifixion, Martin Scorsese’s 1988 ”The Last Temptation of Christ.” At the time, recalls former Universal honcho Tom Pollock, ”There were millions of letters written and 25,000 people marched on Universal. There were death threats against my chairman, myself, and Marty Scorsese. There was security in our lives for years.” And all that for a lousy $8.4 million at the box office.

Of course, the analogy is imperfect; ”Temptation” alienated Christians, while ”Passion”’s critics — a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars, as well as the Jewish Anti-Defamation League — have complained that the movie may demonize Jews and make them targets for anti-Semitic violence. Studios may be less worried about losing Jewish ticket sales — said one executive, in a demographic understatement, ”If all the Jews in America don?t go see ‘The Passion’ and all the Christians do, that’s not so terrible. Commercially speaking.” — than sparking boycotts of affiliated companies (music labels, theme parks) and shareholder outrage.

The leading suitor for the movie, Newsweek says, is Newmarket, an independent house without such corporate worries. Independent Lions Gate has also expressed interest, as has quasi-indie Miramax, though parent studio Disney has slapped down Miramax in the past over its acquisition of controversial religious-themed movies (”Priest,” ”Dogma.”) Of the majors, only Twentieth Century Fox has publicly turned down the movie.

It’s possible that, come Ash Wednesday, Gibson’s Icon Productions will distribute the movie itself. Jonathan Bock, head of Grace Hill Media, a public relations firm that markets movies to Christian audiences, has seen ”Passion” and says it is brutal to watch, though he thinks it will draw plenty of ticket buyers. ”It’s beautiful and tragic. For Christians, it’s like watching a family member being beaten up for two hours. People will be deeply moved.”