Jeff Jensen
November 26, 1999 AT 05:00 AM EST

The surprise hit Dogma is teaching moviegoers that God looks a lot like Alanis Morissette, that rules of the Catholic church can cause universe-threatening loopholes for rebellious angels, and that the Lord’s prophets can be resolutely pro-choice. And Kevin Smith, 29, the writer-director of the controversial comedy, has learned something too.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights denounced the film as offensive last April, and Smith was ready for protests. On Nov. 12, opening night, he drew up a sign proclaiming ”Dogma is dog s—” and quietly infiltrated a group of demonstrators outside an Eatontown, N.J., theater. ”I just wanted to find out what was on everyone’s minds,” says Smith, who was actually moved by the protesters’ conviction. ”These were people like my mother and grandmother, who out of true feeling were there defending their faith.”

But they weren’t the only ones standing in lines outside Dogma, which stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as bad-boy angels scamming their way back into heaven, Linda Fiorentino as the one chosen to stop them, and Chris Rock as a foulmouthed apostle. Dogma’s strong $8.7 million opening weekend is a credit to Smith’s fan base—loyal since 1994’s Clerks—as well as Lions Gate’s marketing plan; the flick, which cost less than $10 million, has shattered conventional wisdom that religious controversies keep audiences away.

”I can’t believe the protests were a deterrent,” says Mark Urman, copresident of Lions Gate Releasing, which bought the rights to distribute Dogma in September from Miramax’s Bob and Harvey Weinstein; the duo feared the film was too risky for Miramax’s owner, the Walt Disney Co. ”You can’t do this kind of business with that kind of deterrent.”

Still, the studio worried that the controversy was making the film seem issue driven, so it positioned Dogma as a comedy, using the marketing of Ghostbusters as the template. Contractually required to spend $10 million in ad support, Lions Gate has also played up the attractive cast—though because the actors insisted on being promoted as an ensemble, the ad campaign couldn’t capitalize on Damon and Affleck, who were reuniting on screen for the first time since Good Will Hunting. In the editing room, the reverse was true. Forced to trim the film by at least an hour, Smith offered to discard a much-talked-about sequence in which Damon murders the board of a Disney-like company. Says Smith: ”Harvey was like, ‘Ben and Matt are in that scene. You’re not cutting that.”’

Now comes the hard part: holding on. EW Online readers gave Dogma a grade of B+, the same as Fight Club and The Insider, neither of which have become big moneymakers. But Smith has other things on his mind. For one, he and wife Jennifer have an infant daughter, Harley Quinn, who was christened during Dad’s opening weekend. For another, ”My priest keeps bugging me for a video,” says Smith. ”I want to get a nice transfer of the flick. If I’m going to take any lumps from him, I at least want it to look good.”

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