Mel Gibson wants moviegoers to get their fill of The Passion of the Christ.

The Hollywood star's Icon Productions has announced plans, along with indie distributor Newmarket Films, to release his controversial movie about the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ on 2,000 screens in theaters nationwide on February 25, Ash Wednesday.

The distribution strategy marks the biggest bow ever for a subtitled picture as well as for a movie featuring dialogue in dead languages--Latin and Aramaic.

It was originally thought that The Passion would unspool in a few cities and spread from there via art-houses. But apparently the controversy surrounding its purported anti-Semitism compelled Gibson to go wider. He's also decided to debut it at multiplexes in the Bible Belt.

In fact, The Passion is scheduled to play on more screens than last month's Christmas comedy Bad Santa and other major Hollywood releases such as Big Fish.

Icon and Newmarket reps were not available to comment on the distribution plan.

But according to Industry observers, the bold plan hedges on the ability of Gibson & Co. to get the word out at the grassroots level to church groups and other Christian organizations so they can mobilize their members to go out and see it.

"There's more of a risk of going platform and facing a negative backlash in the big cities," one anonymous distribution exec told Daily Variety.

The $25 million flick, which was financed, cowritten and directed by Gibson, has come under attack for allegedly reviving the controversial notion that Jews were responsible for Christ's death, as well as its graphic portrayal of the Crucifixion.

Gibson has repeatedly denied that the film is anti-Semitic and said that it's his intention "to inspire, not to offend." He's also attempted to stem such talk by holding sneak peeks for leaders of both Christian and Jewish faiths as well as religious scholars and fellow industry players, many of whom defended the film.

Pope John Paul II also gave his thumbs up in a well-publicized five-word review, reportedly telling his secretary after watching it on DVD, "It is as it was."

For Newmarket, The Passion will be the company's biggest roll-out ever, easily surpassing the 556 screens it had for last summer's sleeper hit Whale Rider.

Newmarket president Bob Berney told the New York Times that theaters have told him demand to see the film is heating up.

"People call and say, 'I want 10,000 tickets,'" Berney said.

The Times also reports that one multiplex in Dallas is setting aside all 20 of its screens for Passion and Passion alone.

The trailer for the film is due to hit theaters this Friday.

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