More and more, Hollywood is going after “Passion” dollars. That is the people who paid to see “The Passion of the Christ.”

Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 movie, which grossed more than $370 million in the United States alone, convinced many Hollywood executives that religious America was a largely untapped movie-going market. Quite a few films, with varying levels of religious themes, have since been directed toward this demographic.

One of the latest entries, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” topped the box office in its opening weekend, selling $30 million worth of tickets in the three days beginning Friday. That was more than the next five movies combined.

Sony Screen Gems green-lit “Emily Rose” the weekend after “The Passion of the Christ” opened last year on Ash Wednesday.

Combining genres of the courtroom and horror, it tells the story of a priest put on trial for negligent homicide after a young woman, whose alleged demons he was trying to exorcise, dies.

The trial revolves around whether Emily Rose was actually possessed by demons or instead perhaps had a medical condition like epilepsy. Characters debate this issue in court as we flash back to Emily Rose’s horrifying condition.

Co-writers Scott Derrickson and Paul Boardman recently told religion reporters covering the film in New York they wanted to make an entertaining and scary movie first and foremost, but a significant secondary goal was to make people think about spirituality.

“We knew we were making a movie that had elements that would make it commercial,” said Boardman, “because it’s genre storytelling—with the thematic depth that we wanted to have the story plumb.”

Derrickson, a Protestant Christian who also directed the film, added that keeping the movie open-ended was important.

“What I wanted to do was write something that wasn’t propaganda, wasn’t about trying to persuade people to think the way I do, but recognize the fundamental importance of that question, those essential questions,” said Derrickson.

“Does the spiritual realm exist? Is there a devil and, more importantly, is there a God? And if so, what’s the implications of that?” said Derrickson. “I don’t care what you believe, but those are questions to be reckoned with. I’m very unabashed about the fact that I think everybody has to reckon with those questions.”

Laura Linney, a two-time Oscar nominee who plays the priest’s defense attorney, agreed, saying she accepted the role only after making sure the filmmakers were committed to a balanced and compelling presentation of the issues.

“I wanted to make sure that both arguments were fully and completely explored and that it was balanced,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that the movie was not telling people what to think or believe, and that it presented two complete sides to this question [of demon possession].”

Jennifer Carpenter, who plays the title character, said the film had already affected her in significant ways, and she hoped it would do the same for others.

“I of course have my own beliefs in science and in religion and in politics, and it made me ask a lot of questions that I may not have asked for years,” said the 25-year-old actress.

However, “how I feel about all of that is irrelevant. It’s about the people who have the courage to come and sit in those seats and look at the things that they have faith in, and take inventory and see how much room they’ve left for new information and new possibilities,” she said. “Whether they leave the theater feeling exactly the way they felt when they came in, or whether they leave a little more open to another idea, is their business.”

Said Linney, whose own character struggles with belief and doubt: “I think it’s OK for people to have a process and to find their own way. And there’s a lot I don’t understand. There’s a lot I don’t understand.”

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for

The movie’s official Web site is here.

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