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'Passion' stuns the box office

Controversy over Mel Gibson's R-rated film about Christ's final hours boosts it to record attendance all over the country.

March 01, 2004|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

Catching Hollywood by surprise, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" has emerged as a box office behemoth, taking in an estimated $117.5 million in its first five days, more than Gibson's Oscar-winning "Braveheart" made in its entire theatrical run.

The film, an R-rated portrayal of the last hours of Jesus, powered to the biggest February opening ever, the largest opening for a subtitled movie and the best opening for a film debuting in the first quarter, a traditionally slow period for moviegoing. The controversy over the portrayal of Jews, coupled with an aggressive grass-roots outreach campaign to evangelical Christians, helped propel the extraordinary turnout for "The Passion."

"No one anticipated this kind of box office success. It took us all by storm," said Dan Fellman, president of theatrical distribution at competing studio Warner Bros., noting that the movie was also the second highest R-rated movie opening, behind "The Matrix Reloaded." The film is playing in 3,043 theaters -- a number that may be increased by 200 or so, in light of burgeoning interest. Exhibitors selling out four or five screens are asking for additional prints for those theaters, said Bob Berney, president of the film's distributor, Newmarket Films. "We didn't decide to go big because of ego or because it's a Mel Gibson movie but because of perceived demand," he said. "We knew the audience was there, and our plan was right on the mark."

The movie is performing as well in New York's Times Square as in Albuquerque, Dallas and Atlanta, confounding observers who thought the film would play strongly only in the South and Midwest. "The people have spoken. It's as simple as that," said Bruce Davey, chief executive officer of Gibson's Icon Productions. "We had a per-screen average of $23,041," he said. "A lot of films would like to have that as their weekend gross."

According to a competing marketing executive, the Greater Los Angeles area had only one theater on the nation's Top 10 highest-grossing theaters for the film; the Block, in Orange, placed No. 8. When the list is expanded to the Top 20, however, the area is the most heavily represented in the nation, with the Irvine Spectrum, the Burbank 30, Universal 18 in Universal City, the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood and the Covina 30 in West Covina. Nationwide, the top-grossing theater was the Mesquite 30 in Dallas, followed by New York City's Empire Theater, the Gulf Pointe in Houston, Southlake Pavilion in Atlanta and the Rio 24 in Albuquerque.

The film, with dialogue in the ancient languages of Aramaic and Latin, has surprised pundits who initially predicted a $20 million to $25 million five-day opening, a figure revised to about $70 million after Wednesday's $26-million tally. Given the large number of Evangelical Christians, and others who rarely attend films, going to the movie, there are no models with which to compare it, noted Tom Prassis, vice president of sales for Sony Picture Classics.

"When a movie opens this strong, you expect a drop-off of 50% to 60% -- though 'Finding Nemo' and 'Lord of the Rings' didn't drop that quickly," he said. "Will people come back time after time, which is what gives a film its longevity?"

According to Davey, advance sales are going strong and repeat business has already kicked in. Judging from the movie's official website, which had 54.1 million hits on Thursday, some people have seen the movie three or four times.

"Some church groups are going back a second time," he said. "We hear that some folks will be going every day during Lent. Still, it's not just evangelicals turning out. An opening this large has generated such curiosity that 'The Passion' has become a must-see film."

"The Passion" arrived on a particularly barren final weekend in February, its stiffest competition coming from the third weekend of Sony's "50 First Dates." The film, starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, finished a distant second place with an estimated $12.6 million, bringing its total to $88.7 million. The top-performing new film was Paramount's "Twisted," a serial killer movie with Ashley Judd and Samuel L. Jackson that came in third with $9.1 million. Lions Gate's "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," acquired in its merger with Artisan Entertainment, took in $5.9 million, while Fox Searchlight's "Broken Lizard's Club Dread," a slasher film spoof, brought in $3 million.

Among films opening in limited release, the well-reviewed comedy "Good Bye, Lenin!" grossed $70,223 in six theaters, and Prassis said it was the top film in all the complexes where it was booked.

Although the total box office for "The Passion" is nearly quadruple the about $30 million Gibson said he spent to make the film, it's too early to predict at what point he will make back his investment. Typically a studio gets back 50% to 60% of a movie's total for the entire run, with theater companies keeping the rest. The cost of prints, advertising and Newmarket's distribution fee will come out of the studio share, with whatever's left going to Gibson's company, Icon Productions.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Box Office

Preliminary results based on studio projections, in millions.

*--* Movie 3-day gross Total The Pas of $76.2 $117.5 Christ

50 First Dates $12.6 $88.7

Twisted $9.1 $9.1

Confes of a Teen $6.1 $16.7 Drama Qn

Dirty Dan: Hav Nights $5.9 $5.9

Miracle $4.4 $56.3

Eurotrip $4.0 $12.8

Wel to Mooseport $3.4 $11.6

Barbershop 2 $3.1 $57.6

Brok Liz Club Dread $3.0 $3.0

*--*

Source: Nielsen EDI Inc.

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