LOS ANGELES – Mel Gibson's (search) gamble on "The Passion of the Christ" (search) paid off enormously, riding a storm of religious debate to a $117.5 million haul in its first five days, according to studio estimates Sunday.
"The Passion," which debuted on Ash Wednesday (search), rocketed to the No. 1 box-office slot for the weekend with $76.2 million from Friday to Sunday.
"The Passion" put up the second-best five-day figures for a movie opening on Wednesday, behind last year's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" at $124.1 million and ahead of "Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace" at $105.6 million.
The first movie released in 2004 to cross the $100 million mark, "The Passion" easily passed the weekend's No. 2 flick, "50 First Dates" at $88.7 million, as the year's top-grossing film.
Once considered a niche film that would appeal mainly to conservative Christians, the bloody chronicle of Christ's crucifixion swelled to blockbuster proportions as Gibson rallied church groups to support it and accusations of anti-Semitism brought mainstream attention.
"It's an event movie," said Bruce Davey, Gibson's partner in his film company Icon Productions. "It all began with the grass-roots campaign we started, but the controversy has obviously helped in creating awareness."
Some Jewish and Christian leaders have said they fear "The Passion" will revive the notion that Jews collectively were responsible for Christ's death.
Gibson has denied such accusations, and key cast members — including Jim Caviezel, who plays Christ, and Maia Morgenstern, a Jewish actress who plays Mary — said Gibson approached the film with great respect for Judaic traditions.
Gibson put up the movie's $25 million budget and will reap most of the returns. Hollywood studios passed on the movie, so Gibson put it in theaters through independent distributor Newmarket Films, which will get a cut of Gibson's profits.
"The Passion" provided a box-office jolt for theaters, whose ticket sales were running 7 percent behind last year's. After four straight weekends of declining revenue, the top 12 movies took in $132.1 million, up 53 percent from the same weekend a year ago.
"The Passion" took in more money than the rest of the top 12 combined, with other new movies making barely a ripple.
The Ashley Judd crime thriller "Twisted" debuted at No. 3 with $9.1 million from Friday to Sunday. "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," a prequel to the 1980s hit, opened in fifth place with $5.9 million. The horror spoof "Broken Lizard's Club Dread" premiered at No. 10 with $3 million.
Playing in 3,043 theaters, "The Passion" averaged a whopping $25,041, compared to $3,367 in 2,703 cinemas for "Twisted."
The success of "The Passion" is more remarkable considering it was shot in two dead languages, Aramaic and Latin, and plays with English subtitles. The movie's violence, including a savage depiction of Christ's scourging and crucifixion, also did not deter movie-goers, who lifted "The Passion" to the second-best R-rated opening ever behind "The Matrix Reloaded" at $91.8 million for its first weekend.
"'The Passion' is the most unlikely blockbuster I've ever seen. I don't have enough adjectives in my repertoire to describe it," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. "Even nonbelievers probably felt the need to see this film because it's undeniably about one of the most important events in history, and everybody is talking about it."
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "The Passion of the Christ," $76.2 million.
2. "50 First Dates," $12.6 million.
3. "Twisted," $9.1 million.
4. "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen," $6.1 million.
5. "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," $5.9 million.
6. "Miracle," $4.4 million.
7. "Eurotrip," $4.1 million.
8. "Welcome to Mooseport," $3.35 million.
9. "Barbershop 2: Back in Business," $3.1 million.
10. "Broken Lizard's Club Dread," $3 million.