Mark Caro at the Chicago Tribune asks the open-ended question of why The Nativity Story flopped where The Passion of the Christ succeeded.
I think there are a host of reasons here.
- Mel Gibson starred in The Passion. Such a big star making such a provocative film about his faith – whatever it might be – is news and therefore is interesting.
- The Passion really paved new ground in its outreach to Christian audiences. Up until that point I had never heard of pastors and other leaders being invited to film screenings and whole congregations going to a movie. Since then the tactic of trying to appeal to “evangelicals” has been tried by a host of movies, including The Nativity, and it’s starting to wear thin.
- The subject of Christ’s Passion journey had not really been done before on film. Scenes of his torture and crucifixion had been in other movies but this was all about that so it was breaking new cinematic ground.
- The controversy over the graphic violence got it a lot of free publicity, as did the whole “The Jews killed him” thing.
- Reformation or not, there’s still a little Catholic in all Christians. Even as a Lutheran who denies that good works or suffering have anything to do with my salvation, many people continue to believe that the point of life is to suffer a bit until you die and go to Heaven. All that brutality played into it at least a little bit.
- The Nativity just didn’t have the things that generate an interesting campaign. The poster was idyllic and the trailer was sleep-inducing. It just didn’t work from a marketing point of view.
- Everyone knows the story of the birth of Christ. Not everyone knows the details of the Passion, making it more of a theology class for some.
- All that violence in The Passion created a visceral reaction among viewers, something that prompted strong levels of word-of-mouth. People were moved on a primal level by what they saw and it opened up a level of understanding that they didn’t have before. The Nativity covered familiar ground in what seems to have been a safe way, making sure not to offend anyone.
There are more reasons, I’m sure, but this is at least a starting list of answers to Caro’s question. Feel free to add your own.