Australian exhibitors appear to be rallying behind Mel Gibson's controversial film The Passion.

The film, about the last hours of Jesus, has been attacked in the US by some religious organisations. Four minutes footage from The Passion screened at the Australian International Movie Convention this week; the full length film is set to be released in the US next year.

The chief executive of Australia's fourth biggest cinema circuit labelled the footage from The Passion as "truly awesome".

"I could give you a bunch of superlatives," said Neil Pentecost, who has a reputation for speaking his mind. "There was a group of us sitting together and we all had the same reaction: we cannot wait to see the finished film."

The sumptuous footage contained many key scenes, including glimpses of the crucifixion of Jesus. Mel Gibson grew up in Australia and in a statement issued through his company Icon said that The Passion was very important to him "as a producer and director, as well as personally," and he was proud to share his enthusiasm on his home ground.

Alongside The Passion, Icon chose US comedy Mambo Italiano to screen in its entirety. Local chief executive Mark Gooder said many exhibitors afterwards told him they would like a print: "But all of them then said they wanted two of The Passion".

The other films being showcased to exhibitors at the Australian Movie Convention this week are Lara Croft: Tomb Raider 2 (UIP), S.W.A.T. (Columbia TriStar), Seabiscuit (Buena Vista International), Matchstick Men (Roadshow), Amercian Splendour (Rialto) and the Australian films Gettin' Square (Hoyts) and The Honourable Wally Norman (Becker).

For the second consecutive year, the opening night provided a sneak preview of the full slate of upcoming Australian films, with many of the filmmakers and actors being flown in by the Australian Film Commission.

Australian films were further promoted the next day through a trade show and a lively session about the financing of Australian films. As was the case last year, there will also be sessions on piracy and the classification system.

This year's Australian star of the year award went to Mick Molloy, who co-wrote, co-produced and starred in the comedy Crackerjack, last year's biggest local hit.