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March Brings Abundance of Religious Titles

8 Feb, 2004 By: Brendan Howard

April will be a month rich with religious significance, what with the Christian holiday of Easter (April 11 this year) celebrating the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the Jewish holiday of Passover (starting April 4 this year) celebrating the biblical exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

For video retailers, the month also marks another milestone.

“It's traditional slowdown season … always spring and fall … for as long as I can remember,” said Ted Engen, president of Video Buying Group. “Easter is a pretty good season for sellthrough and rental. It's after that we see the slowdown.”

And, sure, the holiday-themed kids' titles sell well in the Easter season, but the religious/spiritual genre is no slouch, either.

Have Faith in March
“Ever since 9/11, there's been a whole trend with family films that is still strong today,” Engen said. “There's still a strong demand for family, spiritual -- that kind of product.”

“Easter's a time you can dust off those old religious titles,” said Todd Zaganiacz, president of Video Buying Group.

Or maybe bring a dustless version of a classic to market.

Paramount Home Entertainment March 9 (prebook now) will debut The Ten Commandments Special Collector's Edition on DVD ($19.99), a remastered version of the Charlton Heston starrer about the prophet Moses and his journey with the Jewish people from Egypt to the Promised Land. Extras include a commentary by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Cecil B. DeMille's Epic, The Ten Commandments.

“Most of the major cast has passed away or are in poor health, so we felt with the commentary we'd give a more scholarly, informed [approach],” said Martin Blythe, VP of publicity for Paramount Home Entertainment.

Also March 9 from Paramount comes the DVD debut of Brother Sun, Sister Moon ($14.99), about a free-thinking monk who develops his own belief system and goes head-to-head with the Catholic establishment.

For the Catholic community comes Pope John Paul II: Collector's Set, with two titles -- one on the pope's life and another with the Christmas and Easter liturgies performed at the Vatican -- on one DVD ($19.98). It streets March 30 (prebook March 2) from Warner Home Video. April 6 (prebook March 9), also from Warner, come the BBC Video “Ancient Evidence” titles Mysteries of Jesus, Mysteries of the Apostles and Mysteries of the Old Testament (DVD $9.98 each, DVD set $29.98).

A Different Kind of Passion
Of course, as retailers think about religious and spiritual titles for the spring, everyone's got the upcoming Mel Gibson-directed The Passion of the Christ on their mind.

The drama doesn't open until Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday on the Catholic calendar, but already its brutal depiction of Jesus' crucifixion and the Jews and Jewish authorities at the time are generating criticism and charges of anti-Semitism.

Another film about Jesus' life, death and rebirth is The Gospel of John from Visual Bible International, which is in select theaters now, has been sold as a three-DVD set (the third DVD is extras) at www.thegospelofjohn.com for months, and is now getting a rental release through distributors April 6.

The film, a word-for-word dramatization of the New Testament's Book of John in the Good News Bible (a modern translation), is prefaced by a statement that sets the historical stage for the piece:

“The Gospel of John was written two generations after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is set in a time when the Roman Empire controlled Jerusalem. Although crucifixion was the preferred Roman method of punishment, it was not one sanctioned by Jewish law. Jesus and all his early followers were Jewish. The Gospel reflects a period of unprecedented polemic and antagonism between the emerging church and the religious establishment of the Jewish people. The film is a faithful representation of that Gospel.”

“This was something I was pushing for at the beginning,” said producer Garth Drabinsky. “But we put the idea of the preface aside knowing we'd get back to it. Then the Gibson controversy hit. [The preface] helped tone down the inflammatory issues of the Gospels, because you have to understand the context, the history of when they were written.”

To further ensure the film's historical accuracy, Drabinsky assembled a committee of scholars to act as advisers for the screenplay, costuming and sets. Interviews with them are featured in the set's extras disc.

Henry Ian Cusick, who plays Jesus in the film, said the actors were involved in the artistry of the film on the set and weren't consumed by worries about potential charges of anti-Semitism or even the immensity of handling such a religiously important work.

“This is the biggest thing I've ever done,” Cusick said. “In that naivete, there were no expectations. I didn't come burdened. I came grabbing at it, really wanting it, so excited that I was doing this scene today. There was no dread.”

Next up for Visual Bible are versions of the Book of Mark and Samuel I and II.

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