Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" opens Wednesday.

When the distributor for Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ," was sending out copies to theaters across the country, it sent one print to Utah's hometown theater chain, figuring that would be more than enough.

That's what Angelina Kendzior, event manager for Larry Miller's theaters at The Gateway and Jordan Commons, thought. Until local clergy started calling to buy blocks of tickets, some of them asking to book an entire 600-seat theater.

"It totally took us by surprise," she said, adding that the calls started coming as early as October and November for the movie that opens Wednesday.

As of midweek, at least 18 churches had purchased between 5,000 and 6,000 tickets, she said, most of them at Jordan Commons, where two copies will play, and the rest at The Gateway, which has one copy.

A variety of churches have called, she said, "Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics. We haven't had any Jewish calls, and no one from the LDS Church."

A couple of private schools have also called, and some churches are asking about bringing youth groups. "That puts us into a weird territory we haven't been before because we have to have a parent's signature on a form" because of the R rating, she said. Distributors have echoed Gibson himself, who has said the film is so graphic that "absolutely 13 and under, there's no way they should see this."

R rating

The interest here has "taken people out of state in the industry by surprise," Kendzior said. There has been no local advertising, other than "posters in the lobby."

"We haven't been calling them — they've been calling us."

Pastor Jeff Nellermoe of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church said he bought 575 tickets for a showing on Feb. 28 and the church is selling them in-house, inviting people to bring their friends. After the screening he's inviting moviegoers back to the sanctuary for a discussion and Communion.

While he has not seen the film, Pastor Nellermoe said he has learned enough to "satisfy our curiosity as to why it's rated R."

He believes his 12-year-old daughter is ready for what she'll experience, but "it's a fine line."

"I think people of more sensitivity may understand what's going on but would not benefit at all from seeing the film." Though the crucifixion of Christ is a major theological building block for Christians, "you can understand that without having to be traumatized."

Pastor Sieg Krueger of Mountain View Christian Assembly said he bought an entire theater's worth of tickets for March 1. After he saw the film in Orlando, Fla., and heard Gibson describe to a group of 5,000 clergy why he made the film, "that started it for me."

Corky Seevinck, pastor at Salt Lake Christian Fellowship, said he isn't buying blocks of tickets but simply telling people to take their friends and go.

Clergy to gather

The film is also bringing local clergy together for an experience they wouldn't otherwise have, according to Pastor Greg Johnson, organizer of a group of local evangelical pastors called Standing Together.

More than 100 local clergy from a variety of faiths, including Catholic Bishop George Niederauer, are scheduled to view the film Tuesday and respond to its content in a press conference after the screening. Local Jewish leaders, including three rabbis, have also been invited, he said, noting the warm reception he got when he approached a contact at the Jewish Community Center.

"Originally I didn't intend to invite them. While I don't think the film is anti-Semitic, I wanted to be sensitive" to the concern expressed by national Jewish leaders about the film's potential to ignite religious hatred. But he found they had been trying to arrange a prescreening. "They said the fact that you would set that up and be thoughtful enough to include them was great."

Pastor Johnson said he believes religious leaders "really ought to be informed and step forward on this and not be in the background.

"This is our turf, and we should have something to say about it."

Gibson's message

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Pastor Harry Berg of Draper Friends Christian Church plans to take members of his congregation as a block on Feb. 28. "The congregation has been talking about it. Within the Christian community it has been a point of conversation for a while."

They're talking as much about Gibson as they are about his film, Pastor Berg said. The fact that Gibson is Catholic hasn't been a barrier.

"He gave the salvation message in the first two minutes of Diane Sawyer's interview," which aired Monday on ABC's "Primetime." Pastor Berg has been intrigued watching reporters who don't normally talk about religion "stumble through it a bit."

Local reporters aren't exempt, Pastor Berg said, noting one who was questioning how the film would be used by a church in follow-up discussions. "It's fun watching the media struggle with the gospel. I'm shaking my head and saying, 'This is incredible — we'll take it any way we can get it.' "