Mel Gibson’s graphic and controversial The Passion of the Christ surprised everyone — including its own distributor — when it opened last Wednesday. Newmarket, the company that released the film in the United States, predicted that afternoon that the film would gross about $20 million; instead, it made $23.6 million for the day, or $26.6 million once the church previews on Monday and Tuesday are taken into account.
And on Sunday, Newmarket predicted a weekend gross of $76.2 million; like all distributors, they estimated the film’s Sunday take based on the totals for Friday and Saturday. But Gibson’s death-of-Jesus film apparently attracted a much higher percentage of its followers on the Sabbath than most movies do — bringing its weekend gross to $83.8 million.
That means the film grossed $125.2 million in its first five days — the third-highest North American five-day opening in history, behind The Matrix Reloaded and Spider-Man, and the highest five-day opening for any film released on a Wednesday, ever. The film’s three-day weekend gross is also the sixth-highest ever (the record is Spider-Man’s $114.8 million), and the second-highest for an R-rated film (after The Matrix Reloaded’s $91.8 million).
The film also had the biggest opening weekend of any film released outside the summer or winter holidays; the previous record was the $58 million earned by Hannibal, another R-rated film released in February that some critics accused of sadism.
Some industry experts are now predicting The Passion, which cost Gibson about $50 million to produce and promote, could make as much as $350 million in North America alone. Of the seven other films that have made $100 million in five days or less, all but one have gone on to make over $300 million in total.
BoxOfficeMojo.com has even set up a page that compares The Passion’s box-office performance to that of films like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (which has grossed $364.4 million so far) and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (which grossed $431.1 million in 1999).
However, momentum is everything, and it remains to be seen what sort The Passion will have. The Matrix Reloaded made more money in its first five days than any other movie — but its total North American earnings came to a comparatively disappointing $281.6 million. On the other hand, in 1997, Titanic made only $28.6 million in its first weekend, but it grew in popularity and went on to gross just over $600 million, becoming the all-time box-office champ in unadjusted dollars.
In addition, the figures for this week may have been inflated by the fact that some churches bought out entire screenings and gave the tickets away for free or at discount rates. The figures for this first week, unlike the figures for most films’ first weeks, may therefore not represent how many people were actually interested in buying tickets to the film.
Canadian moviegoers seemed to be less enthusiastic about The Passion than their American counterparts. The National Post reported Tuesday that the film had grossed $6 million in Canada in its first five days — roughly 5 percent of what it made in the United States, despite the fact that Canada has over 10 percent of the American population. (The difference in currency does not affect these figures, since the studios count each Canadian dollar as equivalent to an American dollar when compiling their box-office stats.)
A spokesman for Equinoxe, the film’s Canadian distributor, said he was thrilled by the results, though he noted that the film’s box-office take was less than half of what films in the Lord of the Rings ($14.7 million) and Matrix ($13.5 million) franchises had made during their first weekends in Canada.
This was markedly different from the United States, where The Passion made more in its first five days than any of the Lord of the Rings films; it also made about 90 percent of what The Matrix Reloaded made in its opening weekend.
— A version of this article was first published at CanadianChristianity.com.