By Dusty Vassey

TIFTON - The passion of area movie viewers was directed at one movie Tuesday, "The Passion of Christ."

The movie, which was one of the 10 highest earning movies ever, was released on DVD and VHS Tuesday. Fans of the movie, and those who had never seen it, rushed to stores to buy or rent it.

"The film details the final hours in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and its experiences that have rendered viewers speechless and intensified their faith," said Eric Gaines, manager of Sam Goody in the Tifton Mall. Sam Goody had posters and displays promoting the new release.

The movie, directed by Mel Gibson and starring James Caviezel as Jesus Christ, was one of the most popular movies of the year, both with critics and fans. It earned more than $370 million at the box office in the U.S. alone and was popular in many other countries as well.

"People have been looking for it for the last four or five months and it finally came out today," Gaines said. Many of the video sales had been pre-orders, where customers had ordered the movie sometimes months in advance. It was Sam Goody's hottest-selling item of the day.

"We've had people asking for it for weeks," said Jennifer Kimble of Anderson Merchandisers, a company that supplies Wal-Mart with their DVDs and videos. "The phone was ringing off the hook yesterday wanting to know if we had it, if it was out."

"People were waiting here to pick it up at midnight," she said.

Kimble said there were around 50 people waiting to buy the movie when it was first made available. Some of them were even Wal-Mart employees who would have been working the next day, but didn't want to wait that long.

"It seems like everybody I've seen has gotten a copy," Kimble said. "It's reached so many people."

"It's been great," said Winston Hill, owner of Cornerstone Christian Bookstore. "I think a number of customers were eagerly anticipating it coming out today."

Hill said the movie's release had made the traffic in his store increase, as most of them came there only to buy it. Cornerstone had "The Passion of Christ" displayed prominently, with assorted products related to the movie also on sale. These included several books and compact discs, some of them not directly related to the movie but cashing in on the "Passion" name.

"A number of people came in and said we did not get to see it in the theater, so we'll just buy our own copy," Hill said.

People are renting the movie along with buying it. It was the top rental and seller at Tifton's Movie Gallery.

"They've already seen it and they want to show it to another family member to help change their life around," said Kesha Chambers, the store's senior customer service associate.

The popularity of the movie has been based largely on its religious connection, attracting a large audience among the Christian community. Sam Goody even tried to offer Christian groups the opportunity to buy the movie in bulk.

"Church groups were offered a chance to reserve the movie at a discounted price," Gaines said.

Although the primary market for the movie has been the Christian community, the overall appeal of the movie has been obvious by the sheer volume of people buying and renting it.

"It seems like everybody's buying 'Passion of Christ,'" Kimble said.

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