Each week, thousands of Christians gather for prayer and discussion at Liberty University's cavernous Vines Center in Lynchburg, Va.
One Monday morning in January, they listened to husband-and-wife film producing team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey pitch their new movie, "Son of God."
About 10,000 students and faculty members watched as the pair behind the hit History channel miniseries "The Bible" showed clips from the film and discussed its religious significance.
"Yes, it is a movie, but it is more than a movie," Burnett told The Times. "This is an evangelizing tool."
The Jan. 20 visit was part of a months-long campaign that saw Burnett and Downey visit more than 30 religious organizations to promote their film, which is being distributed by 20th Century Fox and premieres on 3,254 screens nationwide Friday.
"They've been on the road seemingly for months," said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution for 20th Century Fox. "It is really a remarkable achievement, what they've been able to do with their tenacity and dedication to the project."
The effort appears to be paying dividends.
Across the country, churches and other groups have rented out multiplexes where "Son of God" will be shown, free of charge, to their parishioners. Other organizations have bought tickets by the thousands and donated them to churches to disseminate to their flocks.
Locally, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles is giving away 8,000 tickets donated by an anonymous individual. The megachurches of high-profile pastors Rick Warren and Joel Osteen are also distributing free tickets.
Burnett is the successful producer of the hit television series "Survivor," "The Apprentice" and "The Voice," among others. Downey is best known as the co-star of the long-running faith-based TV program "Touched by an Angel."
Their efforts could lead to a sizable opening weekend for "Son of God," which tells the story of the life of Jesus Christ and is culled from footage shot for last March's "The Bible."
It is also the first film to be released in what Rentrak box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian has termed "the year of the Biblical movie." Paramount Pictures' "Noah" will open March 28, and 20th Century Fox's "Exodus" comes out Dec. 12.
If the films are successful, Dergarabedian believes, "this could be an untapped marketplace that could provide dividends for years to come."
Financed by Burnett and Downey's LightWorkers Media and Hearst Entertainment & Syndication, "Son of God" is expected to gross $15 million to $25 million, according to those who have seen pre-release audience surveys.
An opening in that range would put the film far off the pace of 2004's "The Passion of the Christ," which had a domestic debut of $83.4 million and went on to gross $611.9 million worldwide.
But executives at Christian organizations said that the outreach done by Burnett and Downey and the ambitious preselling of tickets — hundreds of thousands have been sold — exceed efforts made to promote "The Passion" a decade ago.
Compassion International, a Christian relief group, didn't mount a ticket giveaway for "The Passion" but is doing so for "Son of God" — and in a major way. The group has purchased 225,000 tickets to screenings in 40 cities including Los Angeles. The tickets are being donated to churches, which are distributing them.
"Everything we do is about Christ, and we feel like this was a perfect opportunity for us to further the message of our savior," said Tim Glenn, communications director for Compassion International, which sponsors needy children around the world.
Arenas Entertainment, a Los Angeles company that specializes in entertainment and film marketing to Latino audiences, has been working with the archdiocese to arrange the free, local screenings and disseminate tickets.
"Son of God" will be shown at theaters in downtown L.A., South Gate, Van Nuys and Oxnard. Santiago Pozo, Arenas' chief executive, said that 30 showings would be in Spanish and 10 in English.
Archbishop José H. Gomez, who saw the film at a private screening in November and served as a consultant to Burnett and Downey, selected the theaters where the free showings would take place.
Burnett is proud of the Spanish-language version of "Son of God," which he said was created with top actors in Mexico, including Eduardo Verastegui, who provides the voice of Jesus.
Pozo expects Latino audiences to attend in big numbers, especially older people who may not speak English.
"Abuelita is saying to her grandson, 'Take me to this film,'" Pozo said. "What they have tried to do is open the movie to an audience that doesn't normally go to the movies."
Aronson said the Spanish-language version of the film is showing in 165 theaters across the country, significantly more than for a typical movie. He said that for most films, about 10 theaters screen a Spanish-language version.
"Son of God" was born out of the 10-hour "The Bible" miniseries. Burnett said that early in the filming of the TV program, he and Downey were reviewing dailies and were astounded by the footage.
"Roma said to me, 'This is so good, we should be making a big feature film,'" Burnett said. "We decided we could, so we did."
Once the decision was made, Burnett said, the production was beefed up to include some cinematic shots — including some requiring a helicopter — that would lend themselves to a feature of epic proportions. The film, budgeted at an estimated $22 million, includes footage that was used in "The Bible" as well as other material that was shot while making the miniseries but not previously aired. Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer provided the score.
When it came to finding a distributor, Burnett and Downey considered several options, but 20th Century Fox had an inside track because its home entertainment division released "The Bible" on Blu-ray and DVD.
After Burnett and Downey's appearance in Lynchburg, Liberty officials decided to rent out a Regal multiplex across the street from the campus, and the school is giving away about 2,000 tickets to opening-night showings of the movie.
Johnnie Moore, Liberty's senior vice president of communications, said the screenings are being done at a cost of "tens of thousands of dollars" to the school, which was founded by the late evangelical pastor Jerry Falwell.
"Son of God" will be shown on all 14 screens at once at midnight.
"We did that on purpose," Moore said, "because our students think it is cool."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun