Grace Hill Media

Using the 'Passion Playbook'

The players in studio power offices call it the "Passion Playbook."

At least, that's what the Variety -- holy writ in Hollywood -- calls the slate of commandments that insiders are supposed to be following in order to reach the $612 million audience that backed "The Passion of the Christ." Or was it the $744 million audience that embraced "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"?

Whether or not a savvy consultant has produced an actual "Passion Playbook" doesn't matter. Everyone knows that studio executives are becoming more interested in the "Christian market," even if admitting it still gives many of them sweaty palms.

The latest high-profile test case is "The Nativity Story," a reverent epic from New Line Cinema that premieres this Sunday (Nov. 26) at the Vatican.

"The success of the Passion ... made this film possible on a studio level. I definitely think that from a studio and a financier standpoint, you look at that and you go, 'Well the nativity story -- at Christmas -- could work for us,' " said producer Wyck Godfrey, whose past projects included standard studio projects like "I, Robot," "When a Stranger Calls" and "Alien vs. Predator."

Nevertheless, he added, "I don't think anyone knows anything when it comes to this stuff in terms of how to, exactly, get to this market."

Still, Godfrey said it made sense to take strategic steps to ensure that the "core audience" of believers heard about this movie and that what they heard was positive. It was crucial to follow the "Passion Playbook" even if its contents are not perfect -- yet. And what are some of the guidelines?

* Seek the input of historians, theologians and clergy early and often and try, try, try to nail the details. Most of all, find out how to avoid making mistakes that will offend ecclesiastical shepherds whose opinions filter out -- through print, radio and television -- to their flocks. It's impossible to make everyone happy, but it helps to try.

* Make the story the star. In the case of the Passion, it helped that director Mel Gibson was an A-list superstar who -- while already controversial in Hollywood -- had made numerous films that were popular in middle America. Still, he did not cast familiar faces and, with his daring decision to use ancient languages and subtitles, put the focus on his images and the story itself.

"The Nativity Story" features a cast drawn from eight or nine different nations and the only familiar face is 16-year-old actress Keisha Castle-Hughes of New Zealand, previously nominated for an Academy Award for "Whale Rider."

"The stars of our movie are Mary and Joseph," said co-producer Marty Bowen. "You have to be careful when it comes to casting something like this, particularly with very iconic characters. If Tom Cruise is playing Joseph, that's probably going to take a lot of people out of the movie."

* Court the core Christian audience to create buzz that will reach pulpits and pews. Let test audiences in strategic Bible Belt markets see early versions of the film and listen to the feedback. Hire publicists who understand what sings in the parallel universe of Christian media and know how to produce promotional materials that work in church sanctuaries and Sunday school classrooms.

* It helps if the creative team includes Hollywood professionals who are sincerely motivated to reach the "faith-based audience." In this case, screenwriter Mike Rich is an articulate Christian known for writing "Finding Forrester" and "The Rookie." Godfrey and Bowen grew up in strong Christian homes before heading to Hollywood and both recently decided to make major changes -- spiritual changes, even -- in their lives and careers.

* Remember that religious consumers like quality entertainment, but prefer not to be offended when they grab their popcorn. When seeking studio support, noted Godfrey, he kept repeating this mantra: "Christians watch 'Lost.' " They also watch "Battlestar Galactica," Pixar movies, "Pirates of the Caribbean" and many other hit shows.

Some people in Hollywood hear the words "Christian audience," said Bowen, and they "immediately start thinking about micro-budgeted niche films that cater to some specific group within Christianity as a whole. But our argument to New Line was that 200 million Americans shouldn't be considered a niche."

NEXT WEEK: Walking in Joseph's sandals.