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Mel's New Testament Profits
Gibson Could Earn $500 Million From His Leap of Faith

By Anne Thompson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 18, 2004; Page C01

You can argue all you want about "The Passion of the Christ," but one thing is not debatable: Mel Gibson has gone from People magazine's one-time "Sexiest Man Alive" to "Richest Star Alive."  World Peace.

Because he provided the money behind the movie himself, Gibson stands to make several hundred million dollars. After just 21/2 weeks, "The Passion" has already earned a spot among the top 25 all-time domestic blockbusters, with $267.7 million through Monday, and beat "My Big Fat Greek Wedding's" record as the most successful independent release ever. This weekend, the gory religious epic will likely pass "The Matrix Reloaded's" $281 million gross to become the best-grossing R-rated movie of all time.

With Easter still to come, "The Passion," which is Gibson's third film as a director, could soon enter the $400 million-plus blockbuster territory of "Spider-Man," "Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace" and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," if not the $600 million plateau reached only by the No. 1 movie of all time, "Titanic." This is no longer an issue of a "wacko" (per Andy Rooney) movie star's religious expression.

According to exit polls, a wide swath of Americans age 17 to 70 really like "The Passion." The movie is attracting large numbers of urban and non-urban men and women, says Newmarket Films President Bob Berney, many of them non-moviegoers (25 to 30 percent) and Latinos (who account for much of the film's repeat business). "It's not just performing in the Bible Belt."  WorldPeace.

"The Passion" is even more unusual because a movie star paid for it with his own money. Gibson earns in the neighborhood of $25 million a picture, against a share of the proceeds, as an actor. Coming off two enormous hits, "What Women Want" and "Signs," he had the ability to bankroll and direct his unflinching vision of Jesus's crucifixion, and to pay for the movie's distribution. In bypassing the studio system, and orchestrating an unorthodox release plan, Gibson took all the considerable media heat squarely in the face. While he insists he did not seek the intense level of controversy, it did generate a huge want-to-see fervor for the movie.

Before he decided to work with independent distributor Newmarket Films, Gibson offered 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. a chance to release the film. They turned him down. They would have had to face a media firestorm accompanying the movie, and the film's prospects didn't look that great. Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," for example, earned $8 million in 1988.

They had no idea so many people would flock to see a sword-and-sandal religious epic, which was considered to be a dead genre. Paramount Chairman Sherry Lansing, for one, wishes she had the movie, which Gibson never showed to her. She cried when she finally saw it. "No matter what you feel," she says diplomatically, "you can't deny the extraordinary talent of the filmmaking." Because Gibson paid some $55 million to produce and release "The Passion," he and his production and foreign sales company, Icon Entertainment, get to keep the returns.

How much money is Gibson going to make? Let's do the numbers. (These estimates are culled from figures from several industry experts.)

Assuming the movie performs strongly through Easter, Berney is confident it will pass $400 million. If 50 percent of the theaters' take is returned to Icon, and subtracting other costs and Newmarket's 10 percent of the domestic returns, Gibson's share of the domestic box office should be $150 million. Big American epics tend to do even better internationally, so its foreign theatrical box office could reach $600 million. That means that "The Passion" could yield a total worldwide theatrical gross of $1 billion. ("Titanic" earned $1.8 billion worldwide.) Gibson's share of the foreign take should be another $200 million. So his total net from the worldwide box office could be $350 million alone.

Add profits from licensing and merchandising revenues on the best-selling tie-in book, soundtrack, and items like collectible "Passion" nails ($16 for the 25/8-inch pewter pendant on the Internet), a pay-TV sale, and robust video and DVD sales and rentals, and Gibson's returns could reach $500 to $700 million.

Only one man has ever taken hundreds of millions out of the Hollywood studio system: George Lucas. He socked his "Star Wars" millions into his Bay Area empire Lucasfilm Ltd. and now funds his own movies and reaps the rewards.

Gibson now has the same kind of freedom. Speculation abounds on what he will do with his half-billion.

Asked whether Gibson will donate some of the money from the film to charity, his spokesman Alan Nierob said: "It would be out of character for Mel to publicize his private donations."

He's most likely, sources close to him say, to put money into more religious-themed films. He's scheduled to do another "Mad Max" movie, though those close to Gibson find it hard to imagine him now wanting to do that or make another "Lethal Weapon" sequel.

This much we do know. On Tuesday, Gibson told ABC Radio that there were several "R-rated" Old Testament stories that "fired his imagination," most notably the tale of the Maccabees, who overthrew an idol-worshiping Syrian king in 164 B.C. "They stood up for their beliefs and made war and came out winning," Gibson said. "It's like a western, you know."


How can we manifest peace on earth if we do not include everyone (all races, all nations, all religions, both sexes) in our vision of Peace?

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