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Mel Gibson’s sequel to The Passion of the Christ will face challenges its predecessor didn’t

The 2004 film created today’s Christian movie business, but a lot has changed since then.

Jim Caviezel is set to reprise his role as Jesus in an upcoming sequel to the 2004 blockbuster The Passion of the Christ
Jim Caviezel is set to reprise his role as Jesus in an upcoming sequel to the 2004 blockbuster The Passion of the Christ.
Philippe Antonello/Icon Distribution
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Mel Gibson is making a sequel to his 2004 megablockbuster The Passion of the Christ, and Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in that film, will reprise his role. “The film he’s going to do is going to be the biggest film in history. It’s that good,” Caviezel told USA Today.

That may not be as hyperbolic as it sounds. In 2004, Gibson had trouble getting any studios to sign onto the project, eventually financing it himself. But when The Passion of the Christ came out, it was a bona fide phenomenon, raking in over $370 million at the US box office — it’s still the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, and that’s by a very long shot if you adjust for inflation — and spawning an entire industry of faith-based films and marketing agencies.

When it’s released, Gibson’s Passion sequel will be entering a much different cultural context for faith-based films, one it helped dramatically reshape nearly 15 years ago. Here’s how the 2004 film changed how religious films are made and sold, and what that change could mean for the sequel’s potential as the “biggest film in history.”

The Passion of the Christ more or less defined the market for faith-based films

Simply put, prior to The Passion of the Christ, the faith-based film industry as we know it today (your God’s Not Deads and Heaven Is For Reals and Left Behinds) essentially did not exist, aside from a handful of apocalyptic movies and dramas produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assocation’s World Wide Pictures in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The unprecedented runaway success of The Passion of the Christ turned the industry on its ear. The movie, which follows Jesus through the final 12 hours of his life, is brutal and bloody (as befits its subject), and it deserves its R rating. But it became a huge hit partly because it drew an audience that would rarely go to an R-rated film. Those films typically make less than their PG-13 rated siblings, and with the exception of certain war films, the churchgoing audience is rarely the target audience for an R-rated film.

However, the subject matter of The Passion made both Protestants and Catholics a prime market for the film. (Its interpretation of the events leans heavily on traditional Catholic imagery.) Churches bought blocks of tickets and rented out entire theaters to ensure opening weekend success for the film, which opened on Ash Wednesday, the traditional start to the Lenten season (the 40-day period leading up to Easter).

Gibson made a point of reaching out to American evangelicals as a way to mobilize a huge marketing base. In a savvy move, he targeted pastors, likely realizing the massive influence they exerted over their congregations. Eight months before the film’s release, he started screening the film at conferences attended by hundreds or even thousands of pastors, hosted by megachurches pastored by major figures such as Ted Haggard (who was then president of the National Association of Evangelicals), Joel Osteen, and Rick Warren.

Gibson also received endorsements from influential evangelical leaders, including Billy Graham, pastor Robert Schuller, Christianity Today editor David Neff, Focus on the Family founder and chairman James Dobson, 700 Club host Pat Robertson, author Lee Strobel, Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell, devotional author Max Lucado, Left Behind author Tim LaHaye, and former Nixon official and Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson.

Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004) Philippe Antonello/Icon Distribution

That’s a who’s who of influential evangelicals circa 2004, and the fact that Gibson, a Catholic, sought and received endorsements from such a constellation of luminaries virtually ensured the film’s success, even in the face of controversies about the film’s subliminal antisemitism.

It also points to a savvy sense that there was a huge, underserved market looking for films that would reinforce their faith, even if that film was bloody and not entirely in line with a literalist evangelical interpretation of the Bible. And if pastors and churchgoers were buying up block tickets and attending the film, the power of peer pressure also meant that many more people saw the film than might have gone on their own.

There was a feeling among Christians at the time that it was their duty to go see the film, to experience Christ’s suffering, and also to support a movie made “for us.”

When that audience turned The Passion into a box office juggernaut, Hollywood took notice. Marketing firms sprung up that specialized in marketing to churches; studios like Fox and Sony started production and distribution arms specifically to make films for the “faith audience”; and several more films became hits, including 2008’s Fireproof, which made more than $33 million on a budget of $500,000, and 2014’s God’s Not Dead, which pulled in more than $60 million on a $2 million budget.

A Passion sequel faces a new set of challenges its 2004 predecessor didn’t have to navigate

Since The Passion of the Christ, Gibson has both made other films that appealed to a faith audience (including 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge) and been in trouble for making homophobic, racist, and antisemitic comments. A sequel would also enter a markedly different movie landscape than The Passion did; the faith-based audience is no longer starved for entertainment (especially with companies like Pureflix both producing and distributing movies regularly).

And sources have hinted that the film may cover the “harrowing of hell” — the idea that between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended into hell and, in some traditions, freed the souls of the righteous dead. (The Apostles’ Creed, which many denominations include as part of their services each week, contains a phrase alluding to this, though theologians differ on what it means and whether it is a good translation of the Biblical text.)

Because of the controversial nature of this assertion, and depending on how much of that story is covered in a sequel, evangelical audiences in particular — who tend to favor literalist translations of the Bible on screen instead of imaginative ones — may react with less enthusiasm than they did in 2004.

But one last factor may propel a Passion sequel to be the “biggest movie of all time”: “Evangelical” has become synonymous in some circles with a political leaning, and because of the heightened political nature of discussions around culture, going to see a sequel might be seen as a small-p political act as well — a way to repudiate godless, liberal, secular Hollywood. The God’s Not Dead franchise has been successful largely by tackling political matters, rather than truly religious ones; it’s not hard to imagine that the success of the Passion sequel may lie in taking that same tack.

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