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Lent likely to fuel 'Passion'

By Associated Press
Published March 3, 2004

LOS ANGELES - After opening with an astonishing $125.2-million over five days, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is positioned to get even bigger as the Christian season of Lent leads up to Easter on April 11.

The box-office total announced Monday by distributor Newmarket Films pushed The Passion past The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ($124.1-million) for biggest debut by a film opening on a Wednesday, Ash Wednesday in this case.

The total was almost $8-million more than Newmarket first estimated because far more people turned out Sunday to see Gibson's grisly crucifixion re-creation than originally predicted.

"I think we'll see strong bookings leading up to Easter, and I would anticipate Easter would be a huge weekend," said Bruce Davey, Gibson's partner at his film company, Icon Productions.

The film played strongly among all age and ethnic groups and in every region of the country, especially in some Bible belt and heartland cities such as Dallas, Houston and Oklahoma City, said Rob Schwartz, head of distribution for Newmarket. Gibson hired the independent outfit to put The Passion in theaters after Hollywood studios shied away.

The movie also opened in Australia and New Zealand on Ash Wednesday and is gradually debuting worldwide. Through March and April, The Passion will open in Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Mexico and most of South America.

The Passion embodies the most basic definition of the independent film. Though its $25-million budget (paid entirely by Gibson) is far larger than most indies, The Passion is a personal vision offered without the slightest concession to mainstream tastes or box office commerce.

The film succeeded through Gibson's brilliant marketing strategy. He sold his vision from the ground up by selectively screening the movie for like-minded church leaders, who spread the buzz to congregations nationwide.

When some Jewish and Christian groups complained that the movie could foster anti-Semitism, Gibson largely stepped back and let the debate rage.

It probably was a blessing in disguise for Gibson that Hollywood would not touch the film. Conventional studio marketing never could have provided the free ride of publicity The Passion received from headlines and media commentary.

"You've got to have the madness to step outside the system, and he did," said Peter Bardazzi, director of new media development at New York University, who saw The Passion on opening day. "I won't say it's a work of art myself, this movie, but he caused more controversy outside the system than anyone has in the last 20 years."

Because The Passion was a personal quest by Gibson, Hollywood observers doubt big studios will jump on the bandwagon with religious sagas.

"I hate to underestimate Hollywood's ability to imitate, but I kind of think that these executives realize that there is a unique alignment of the stars with this picture," said Kim Masters, an entertainment correspondent for National Public Radio. "I think Mel could easily decide to do more of these, and he would be guaranteed a certain return. But not necessarily on this level."

[Last modified March 3, 2004, 01:45:07]

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