Studio using marketing plan that made `Passion of the Christ' a success

Walt Disney Studios hopes the same kind of church-based campaign that helped turn "The Passion of the Christ" into a blockbuster will convert C.S. Lewis' children's classic "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" into big profits when the film comes out in December.

The $150-million mix of computer-generated imagery and live action, which is coming to Charlotte on Dec. 9, is based on the book series' first installment.

The books have sold 90 million copies over 55 years, so the project seems tailor-made for the faith and family market.

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" tells the story of four children who are evacuated to the countryside during the World War II bombing of London, only to find a magical wardrobe that leads to an eternal world. Themes such as good versus evil, betrayal and, ultimately, forgiveness are woven into the tale. Some people regard a central character -- Aslan, the lion -- as a Christ figure tortured in place of a young human sinner. Others contend that Lewis' books should be seen as myth rather than biblical allegory.

"Everyone has his own take on the book, to which the movie is faithful," said Disney's Rice. "Rather than embracing any interpretation, we're remaining neutral."

A movie doesn't have to be overtly religious, though, to connect with the church-based audience. The promotional campaigns for New Line's "Secondhand Lions," Universal's "Cinderella Man" and Screen Gems' "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" -- just for starters -- were directed at a grass-roots evangelical component.

"Many people put churchgoers and Hollywood on the opposite sides of the equation," said Paul Lauer, whose Motive Entertainment orchestrated the "Passion" campaign and has been working on the same for "Narnia."

"But churchgoers are hungry for movies reflecting strong values -- like `Narnia,' " he said