In a semihilarious Back Page send-up in The New Yorker, Steve Martin imagines studio notes to Mel Gibson. Besides trying to change Mary Magdalene’s first name to Heather (“could skew our audience a little younger”), mogul “Stan” suggests: “Could the rabbis be Hispanic? There’s lots of hot Latino actors now, could give us a little zing at the box office. Research says there’s some justification for it.”

Imaginary or not, this may be the first time a studio note was even remotely right.

L.A. Weekly has learned that, according to research exit polls, The Passion of the Christ is attracting a gargantuan 40 percent Latino audience in the cities tested. Until now, there has been only anecdotal evidence that Latinos, as well as Asians and African-Americans, are flocking to the film. The research shows that Latinos are rating Passion higher than does any other ethnic group, and 76 percent say they’re inclined to pay to see the movie again. Not only do 86 percent of Latinos say the film is excellent, but 80 percent say the movie is better than they expected. And while a whopping percentage of the overall audience say they would definitely recommend it, that figure among Latinos is a startling 91 percent.

For too long now, Hollywood moviemakers, who have forced on us countless casts of blond and blue-eyed bimbos and himbos, have been stumped on how to appeal to Latinos, the largest ethnic minority in the country. Is Hollywood idiotic or what? Here, television empires have been built on the gazillion dollars flowing from Latino viewers. G.E. even bought Telemundo because of this. Yet it’s been eons since La Bamba and Selena were big hits, and Jennifer Lopez is the first genuine Latina movie superstar (though probably not for long, post-Gigli), even if Salma Hayek and Rosie Perez are far more talented. But Chasing Papi, released a year ago, was a surprise bomb for 20th Century Fox despite high hopes for the low-budget, high-concept comedy. And Latino-themed small films, like Empire and Real Women Have Curves, barely registered a blip at the box office. There is, however, hype for Columbia’s Spanglish coming later this from James Brooks and starring Adam Sandler and a Latina newcomer. This, at a time when African-American movies are making major crossover numbers.

So here’s Mel, not just pulling in Latinos but even Latino families. He did what no one else has been able to. Frankly, it never occurred to the godless Hollywood liberals — as the folks at Fox News Network and wacko right-wing Web sites refer to us — to use religion as bait for Latinos. And it never occurred to the Democratic Party, pal of most Hollywood filmmakers, to embrace Gibson or his movie. Big mistake. Huge! Because in the 2004 presidential race for Latino votes, any advantage at all could be the difference between winning and losing.

Instead, the conservative propaganda machine is embracing Gibson and The Passion with, well, passion, and it’s become a cornerstone of the Republicans’ strategy to divide this country culturally between the supposed elites they’re so fond of criticizing (tell us, are the rich who get all of Bush’s tax breaks not also the elite?) and just regular Americans, whom they presume to be on their side along with God. GOPers who never found anyone in Hollywood they liked besides Ronald Reagan (and, barely, Ah-nuld) are fawning over Mel and his movie because they smelled a hit in the making. They smelled right: You can’t argue with a box office that will hit $250 mil this weekend.

In one fell swoop, Republicans established a strong bond with the most religious members of those ethnic groups who are supposed to vote Democratic (even if right-wing Republicanism is overwhelmingly anti-immigration). Is that enough for Bible-thumping Latinos, African-Americans and Asians to change political sides? It may not matter: Just having made such a significant inroad could be enough for conservatives to build on in the future since Latinos are expected to grow to 14 percent of the nation’s population in 2010, and half of that population is younger than age 26, and 40 percent is under 18.

In turn, Gibson was brilliant in the way he courted conservatives, first by showing the movie to groups of Republican and Christian VIPs (often one and the same; though it took him ages to show it to Jewish leaders). Then he announced their reactions to the film on the widely read Drudge Report, first stop on the conservative media bandwagon. On the ultra-right-wing, meanwhile, Gibson’s book about the film is selling for “just 99 cents! That’s right, save $24 off the cover price! Just order this book below and accept a four-month trial subscription to NewsMax Magazine.” Elsewhere on the site, a Web poll invites you to weigh in on Gibson, and a news section keeps track of all the anti-Passion articles and reviews in the so-called liberal media.

While estimates put the free media given Gibson and Passion at $50 million to $80 million (double even what most films pay for promotion and advertising), the Fox News Network has been Mel, Mel, Mel almost 24/7. Just look at what, of all people, Fox News political analyst Newt Gingrich had to say about the film and its significance: “I think all the way back to the election of Ronald Reagan, there’s been a real gap between what The New York Times and CBS News think they can accomplish and what the average American believes in, talks about, listens to . . . You’re seeing with Mel Gibson’s movie an enormous outpouring of Middle Americans who are organizing themselves, talking to each other, using the Internet, watching Fox News, listening to radio talk shows, coming together, despite the elite media and despite the best efforts of CBS News and The New York Times. And, as a result, this is clearly the most successful film ever launched in February, and my guess is it’s going to continue to expand and grow in its impact around the country.”

Yes, it’s true that Bill O’Reilly has injected a note of caution by pointing out that, even though entire families are going to see the movie, Passion, because of its R rating, may not be suitable for young children. On the other hand, O’Reilly is so sycophantic in his coverage of Gibson and so forgiving of the movie that he’s virtually replaced Alan Nierob, of Rogers & Cowan, as Mel’s personal publicist. (At one point in an interview, Gibson and O’Reilly joke about going out for ice cream later. Gag us with the spoon.) Little wonder why: Gibson has optioned O’Reilly’s rather forgettable novel, Those Who Trespass. Mighty Christian of him.

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