The Passion of the Christ
Wednesday Numbers Analysis

By Kim Hollis

February 26, 2004

The Passion of The Christ

If you look at Google news today, there are 500 stories about Baltimore Ravens' star running back Jamal Lewis' indictment. The anti-indecency brouhaha involving Howard Stern and Clear Channel merits 626. The potential cuts to Baby Boomers' Social Security benefits tallies a total of 968 news mentions. And the opening of Mel Gibson's controversial film The Passion of the Christ has 1,709, rivaling the count for a story about Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's likely arrest.

For weeks now, the frenzy for the divisive movie has been building to an awesome roar. With only slight advertisement -- commercials and trailers were shown here and there but by no means in a dominant fashion -- upstart distributor Newmarket and director/primary financier Gibson relied on a remarkable grass roots campaign to get the word out about this graphic depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ. Gibson's very savvy decision to preview the film for religious leaders in the weeks leading up to the film's release brought about a torrent of discussion, with topics including a perceived anti-semitism, sensitivity over extreme graphic violence, and even the lack of real diversity amongst the actors who portray the characters.

Since that time, the director has received all manner of "free publicity," from a Dateline special to obsessive MSNBC coverage to a man in Texas who spent $42,000 of his own money to reserve a Cineplex and share the movie with 6,000 other people. In the days leading up to the actual theatrical release, there has been much debate amongst box office forecasters about its box office potential. While some were inclined to point out niche stuff like Left Behind, Omega Code, Luther, and the Gospel of John, it turns out that those who used a comparison to The Blair Witch Project were closest to the target.

Yes, The Passion of the Christ had a historically unprecedented opening Wednesday. According to Newmarket, the film took in an astounding $23.6 million on its opening day. What is even more stunning about this total is that it does not even include the $3 million the picture accumulated in Monday/Tuesday sneak previews. This total is spread over 3,006 theaters, which amounts to a per screen average of $7,851 in its first day alone. The print count stands at 4,643, which means that many theaters are showing the film on multiple screens.

As far as records go, this debut is the largest ever for a Wednesday opener that is not a sequel. So while established franchises such as the Lord of the Rings series may have exceeded The Passion of the Christ's first day number, they had the benefit of previous films to build their box office to a steeper level.

Typically, when movies open on a Wednesday, their box office will drop 50% from day one to day two. However, The Passion of the Christ is anything but a typical film. Predicting its future performance based on past box office history is honestly futile since there are simply no analogs that directly compare.

One thing looks certain, though. The Passion of the Christ is poised to finish with the biggest actual box office total for a religious-themed film ever. According to the Associated Press, the previous champions were the 1959 epic Ben Hur (estimated total of $$74 million), the 1956 film The Ten Commandments ($65 million) and the animated The Prince of Egypt ($101.3 million). It is important to note that the '50s films would be substantially higher if inflation-adjusted for today's dollars, though. Regardless, at this early stage, The Passion of the Christ looks to be a lock for the $100 million mark, a figure that seemed unimaginable when the picture was still searching for distribution a mere four months ago.

Be sure to check back with us over the next three days to see where the box office of The Passion of the Christ falls among the top openers of all time.