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The 'Passion' phenomenon

Gibson's film easily bests others at the box office, but 'Starsky' and 'Hidalgo' perform well.

March 08, 2004|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

"The Passion of the Christ" maintained its momentum at the nation's theaters, taking in an estimated $51.4 million in its second weekend and leaving competition in the dust. Even so, two new arrivals fared well against Mel Gibson's hit as "Starsky & Hutch," a sendup of the 1970s buddy-cop TV series, grossed a solid $29.1 million and "Hidalgo," a horse-racing adventure starring Viggo Mortensen, corralled a respectable $19.6 million.

The three top films grossed about $100 million compared with the $93 million brought in by all top 10 movies in the comparable weekend last year. Instead of demolishing other contenders, marketing experts suggested "The Passion" has expanded the market.

"Two weeks before 'The Passion' opened, we were 10% behind last year's grosses, year to date," said Dan Marks, vice president of Nielsen EDI, a box-office tracking firm. "Now, we're 2 1/2% ahead. That's a remarkable turnaround -- by and large, the result of one picture that's performing incredibly. It's not unusual for films on the blockbuster path to drop 50% from the altitude of the previous weekend, but 'Passion' dropped only 39%."

The third-place showing for Disney's approximately $80-million "Hidalgo," under heightened scrutiny in light of continuing turmoil at the company, is respectable if unspectacular, given the competition.

An executive who worked on the movie noted that the release date, rescheduled from last fall, was timed to take advantage of Mortensen's popularity in "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

"Sure, 'Passion' might have siphoned off some of the over-25s," said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "but when we were planning the rollout, who could have predicted this kind of phenomenon?"

"The numbers were no different than if we had opened a month earlier," said Chuck Viane, president of Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, adding that the film's box-office performance was stronger than projections based on pre-opening audience research.

Dan Fellman, Warner Bros.' president of theatrical distribution, said "Starsky & Hutch" was the studio's best March opening ever. "Starsky" had entirely different demographics from "The Passion," thus blunting the impact of Gibson's film, Fellman noted. "They're R-rated and we're PG-13," he said, "and though some parents are taking their children to see Gibson's movie, they're not in the majority. In terms of subject matter, the difference is also huge. We're a light comedy and they're anything but."

Based on the second-weekend durability of "The Passion," rival marketing executives predict the film should take in a minimum of $300 million domestically -- possibly $400 million -- before the end of its run.

Depending on how well it plays in Asia and other territories with smaller Christian populations, it could follow the traditional formula, doubling that figure worldwide. The movie is performing well in New Zealand, Canada, Greece and Australia. Poland, with its huge Catholic element, opened the movie Friday, and theaters in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Mexico and Latin America will also open it this month. Some countries, such as Germany, have pulled it ahead a month.

"I have no idea how far it can go," Bruce Davey, Gibson's partner in Icon Productions, said from Australia. "This year has been difficult, but ... we've certainly been vindicated in terms of the volume of box office."

"People, it's obvious," Davey maintained, "want more biblical-themed movies. It should come as no surprise. Look what's happened to Christian music -- it's the fastest-selling out there."

"The Passion," Davey said, is the top seller on Billboard's soundtrack chart (third all-time top seller behind "Star Wars" Episode One: The Phantom Menace" and "Star Wars: Episode Two: Attack of the Clones") -- and No. 19 on Billboard's "Top 200." The film's coffee-table book is now in its seventh printing. With 450,000 units sold, it entered the New York Times bestseller list Sunday at No. 5.

Davey said the DVD/home video deal is "still being negotiated," although he refused to say with whom; 20th Century Fox, "Passion's" distributor in Asia and Latin America, is said to be the choice for domestic distribution on the home video end, as well.

"Though there are even more variables than usual, 'Passion' should take in as much in video as it does in theatrical," said Scott Hettrick, editor in chief of Video Business and DVD Exclusive magazines. "And because the studio gets only 65 to 80 cents on every dollar spent compared to 50 cents from box office, it's potentially a more lucrative market."

Davey said Icon licensed the manufacture of a number of "Passion"-related products, including pewter nail pendants, bracelets with a cross and biblical verse, and mugs with "The Passion" in Aramaic, to exert a measure of control over the items.

"If you only have other people ripping you off," he explained, "it becomes a circus and you end up with junk."

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