Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (search) took in $23.6 million on opening day, positioning it as the biggest religious-themed movie since "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur."
The film also took in an estimated $3 million in private screenings for church groups Monday and Tuesday in advance of the official opening Wednesday.
The $26.6 million U.S. and Canada total released Thursday was above distributor Newmarket Film's (search) preliminary estimate of $15 million to $20 million a day earlier.
"We wanted to be a little strategically conservative," said Rob Schwartz, head of distribution for Newmarket, which Gibson hired after no Hollywood studio would handle the film because of its divisive subject matter. "Prior to the opening, I don't think we could have counted on a $26 (million) to $27 million opening, but we'll take it."
The movie is well on its way to the $100 million mark, Schwartz said. The 1959 Roman-Christian epic "Ben-Hur" (search) grossed an estimated $74 million, while 1956's "The Ten Commandments" took in about $65.5 million, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
In today's dollars, "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments" likely would be $300 million blockbusters.
The 1998 animated tale of Moses "The Prince of Egypt" took in $14.5 million over its first three days on its way to a $101.3 million total. Based on its opening-day numbers, "The Passion" should easily surpass that.
"The Passion" fell far short of the single-day record of $43.6 million held by "Spider-Man," (search) but it did rank as the fifth-best Wednesday debut ever, behind "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" ($34.5 million), "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" ($28.5 million), "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" ($26.2 million) and "The Matrix Revolutions" ($24.3 million).
Gibson's film already has passed the receipts of other modern religious films over their entire runs, among them "The Last Temptation of Christ" ($8.4 million), "The Omega Code" ($12.5 million) and "Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie" ($25.6 million).
The film, starring Jim Caviezel (search) as Jesus, is a bloody depiction of Christ's final hours and crucifixion.
The movie's box-office prospects benefited from months of debate as Gibson built support by screening it for church groups and excluding potential critics, while some Christian and Jewish leaders said it could fuel anti-Semitism by implying Jews were collectively responsible for Christ's death.
Early on, "The Passion" looked like it might follow the pattern of other Christian movies, playing to a small core audience. The furor over the film, along with Gibson's outreach efforts to Christians, created the sort of audience frenzy usually reserved for big summer action franchises.
"On paper this movie does not look like a blockbuster. If you took this into a pitch meeting at a studio, they would go, `What, are you crazy?"' said Paul Dergarabedian, Exhibitor Relations president. "But it became this cultural phenomenon. This fervor was created that led to this enormous blockbuster-style opening day."
"The Passion" opened on 4,643 screens in 3,006 theaters.
Gibson put up the film's $25 million budget out of his own pocket. After theater owners take their cut, about half of the box office take will come back to Gibson, who then pays Newmarket a percentage fee for distribution.