Mel Gibson’s gamble—a movie depicting Jesus Christ’s final hours—will open on 2,000 screens, a number significantly larger than most “niche” films.

“The Passion of the Christ,” which Gibson personally financed for $25 million, will open Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday. The film has been the subject of much controversy, with various groups alleging it is anti-Semitic because it purportedly places blame for Jesus’ death on Jews.

Gibson’s Icon Productions has partnered with Newmarket Films to release the film, which will be the largest ever release for a subtitled picture, according to a Variety article. “The Passion” was shot using Latin and Aramaic dialogue. It stars Jim Caviezel, a devout Catholic like Gibson, as Jesus Christ.

“By going wide, the pic’s backers are disdaining the platform release pattern most often employed for specialty films,” read the Variety article. A “platform release” refers to a strategy of releasing a film first in major markets like New York and Los Angeles, then gradually putting it into smaller cities.

The decision to avoid a platform release is seen by some as a smart strategy, since it’s likely that the movie’s biggest audiences will be in the Southeast and Midwest, Variety said. Audiences on the coasts may not be as receptive as those in the Bible Belt, so the thinking goes.

Exhibitors have said “The Passion” is generating a lot of interest, and Variety noted that theater chains in smaller markets, like Carmike and Regal, are poised to be major factors in the film’s success.

Furthermore, Philip Anschutz, the majority holder in Regal Cinemas, is a Christian who has used his substantial pocketbook to fund Christian film endeavors. Anschutz created Walden Media in 2001; Walden is behind the upcoming film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Various groups and individuals have already screened “The Passion,” including the Pope, Billy Graham, Rick Warren and Jack Valenti, the CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America. All have spoken positively of the film.

Others, however, have criticized the project as a potential catapult to renewed anti-Semitism.

A representative of the Anti-Defamation League screened a version of the film last August, prompting ADL National Director Abraham Foxman to issue a press release stating, “The film unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob as the ones responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was also an early critic of Gibson’s project.

Nevertheless, the movie is a much-anticipated event for many evangelical Christians, and Icon Productions is marketing the film heavily in that direction.

The movie’s official site offers “fan packs” for only the price of shipping. Various packs are available, and they include posters, door hangers, postcards and buck slips, which can be used as bulletin inserts.

The marketing strategy also includes a companion Web site for resourcing churches: The site claims that the movie is “perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years.”

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for

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