LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Mainstream retailer Sam's Club began offering 50-copy "church packs" of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" this week, in a twist on usual ways of selling to religious groups.
Advance sales for the film's Aug. 31 release on DVD and video cassette already have exceeded expectations for the retailer, the warehouse club division of Wal-Mart Stores.
Though specialized companies usually handle sales to religious groups and stores - "Passion" has different distributors for the secular and religious markets - the bulk packaging of the film fits the Sam's Club strategy, company spokeswoman Jolanda Stewart said.
"Focusing on small business is our mission, and that includes churches and religious segments," Stewart said.
Church groups had already shown enthusiasm for the movie when it was released on the big screen in February, even renting theaters for private screenings.
Sam's is selling 50 DVDs in a pack for $898, a rate of $17.96 apiece, and 50 video cassettes for $795, a rate of $15.90 apiece.
Industry representatives called the bulk packs unique.
"Sam's Club has been a competitor with other Christian titles, but actually going into the church market is a different kind of world," said Steve Ramsey, director of marketing for Gospel Communications International, which has sold Christian films for 50 years.
Zondervan, which holds "Passion" distribution rights for the Christian market, said it supports any effort to spread the film's religious message.
"We are businesses, but there's also a ministry component to what we do, and we understand that some consumers do not shop in Christian bookstores and that's fine," Zondervan spokeswoman Tara Powers said. "We still want them to be able to get the movie."
Stewart said Sam's Club plans to release other films in church bulk packs, but declined to specify titles.