We who sell movies have a difficult task on our hands.

The projects that get the green light nowadays are more and more what they like to call “pre-sold franchises.”

You know what I’m talking about.

For instance, Starksy & Hutch is coming soon.

This was a TV series in the ‘70s and now it’s a movie. And the reason it’s a movie is that research shows there’s a certain number of people out there who know about Starksy & Hutch, who can be roused from their Pop Tarts and Beer long enough to look vaguely interested because they remember the TV series, and might even go see the movie because of it. Consumer awareness it’s called, the power of branding. These days movie studios are not even looking for original stories; that would be too hard to sell and much too expensive to start the branding process from scratch. Instead they scour the corners of our minds, the dusty, spider-web covered nooks and crannies of our memories, trying to find something, anything that we already know about.

And it’s not just old TV shows.

Cartoon series, video games, even products -- Barbie and Ken: The Movie. ANYTHING! that we even vaguely know, that will somehow make our eyeballs flicker in this REM sleep year of 2004, makes studios yell: “We have brain wave activity!”

So you can imagine the average movie executive’s surprise when they realized: they missed one!

Mel Gibson found a brand that everyone already knows about: the story of Jesus Christ -- a guy millions of people are aware of -- and have already bought the action figure! And it was completely off Hollywood’s radar.

This, to me, is why everyone’s mad at Mel Gibson for his new movie The Passion Of The Christ. In the world of pre-sold franchises, Mel Gibson has scooped them all. He found God, all right. And icon-wise, product-wise, pre- sold franchise-wise, man, it’s a friggin’ gold mine.

Hollywood is shocked to learn that there are people out there, all over the world, who actually spend time going to a place called “church” every Sunday. And in the back of these people’s minds, these characters, this story plays out on a weekly and even a daily basis. Forget I Love Lucy, this is the re-run of the millennium, one that every Luke, Mark and Mary has already seen about a million times.

How did the studios miss this??!

But the real reason they’re so mad, the thing that really torques these executives is: even if they’d been looking, they wouldn’t have seen it. They were blindsided.

Jesus wasn’t in the research. And it’s easy to understand why.

If you’re a Zegna-suited movie executive, a Porsche-driving hipster talking “Kreskin-like” into your Cingular headset as you drive from Malibu to your therapist’s office, where do you look? You’re looking at your childhood for answers and all you’ve got is -- old TV Shows. Christ! You’re friggin’ Bill Murray in Scrooged, all you’ve got is re-runs, all you know is the pop culture, all you remember is G.I. Joe and The Brady Bunch and maybe the Flashdance craze of girls suddenly going crazy to buy all those leg warmers. And besides, even if you thought of Jesus, even if you saw the possibility of turning all those fish and loaves into... more fish and loaves, you’re a movie executive. You want “edge” in your projects, something hip, something “wack” to brag about at Pilates -- The Larry Flynt Story -- get it??

And Jesus is so not cool.

Even Starksy & Hutch looks cool -- next to Jesus. At least they get to drive a cool car.

And aren’t YOU the typical American?

Don’t YOU have your finger on the pulse of culture?

You’re driving a Porsche. You must know something.

So for these Prada babies this weekend is like a bad cold, and you can only hope this Passion thing is what you think it is: a marketing anomaly, a one-off, a conjunction of the planets that happens for reasons you can’t explain, you know, kind of like Tom Green. Because my God, if Passion goes, if it’s a hit and people want more, what’s next, MORE Bible stories? And then what? Movies about bowling? Movies about farming? And if that’s the case, you might as well hang up your Guccis and get a real job.

And we all know what a crucifying experience that can be.