'Passion Of The Christ' Pulls Off Box-Office Miracle

Mel Gibson's controversial film about final hours in life of Christ pulls in $76.2 million in estimated grosses over the weekend.

After all the talk about its content and message, the one sure thing about

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is this: It's a blockbuster.

The graphic film about the bloody, final 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ overcame

charges from some of an alleged anti-Semitic message and pulled off a box-office miracle, easily debuting at #1 with a staggering $76.2 million in estimated

grosses over the weekend.

The haul, a record opening for a religious film, was enough for the seventh

best three-day opening ever, putting it behind such mainstream blockbusters as

"Spider-Man" and "The Matrix Reloaded." The film rolled out on Ash Wednesday

and took in an estimated $117.5 million during its first five days, the second

best five-day opening figures in history, right behind last year's "The Lord

of the Rings: The Return of the King" and the best February opening ever for a

new release.

The $30 million film was financed and directed by Gibson, who relied on

word-of-mouth and promotional help from churches and conservative religious

organizations across the country. Though hailed by some critics for Gibson's dramatic

direction, detractors have derided the film for its excessive brutality and what

they charge is a dredging up of the claim that Jews were responsible for the

death of Christ.

The first 2004 movie to cross the $100 million mark, "Passion" easily beat out the weekend's #2 film, the Drew Barrymore/ Adam Sandler

amnesia comedy "50 First Dates," which was far back at an estimated $12.6

million. "First Dates" has grossed $88.7 million to date.

With "The Passion" taking in more than the rest of the top 12 combined, there

was little left over for the other movies that debuted over the weekend. The

Ashley Judd thriller "Twisted" came in at #3 with $9.1 million, while "Dirty

Dancing: Havana Nights" managed just $5.9 million to place fifth. (Click for photos from "Dirty

Dancing: Havana Nights.") The

weekend's other debut, the horror spoof "Broken Lizard's Club Dread," limped in

at #10 with just $3 million. (Click for photos from "Broken Lizard's Club Dread.")

Sunday night's big winner at the Oscars, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return

of the King" — which took home a record-tying 11 awards, including Best

Picture and Best Director for Peter Jackson (see " 'Return Of The King' Crowned 11 Times At Academy Awards") — fell out of the top 10 for the first

time since its release, easing back one slot to #11 on grosses of $2.1

million. It was just ahead of another Oscar winner, "Mystic River," which took in

$2.07 million and netted a Best Actor award for Sean Penn and Best Supporting

Actor honor for Tim Robbins. Best Actress winner Charlize Theron's "Monster" fell one

spot as well, to #13, on grosses of $2.05 million, followed by "Cold Mountain,"

with $1.3 million.

Rounding out the top 10 are "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen" at #4

with $6.1 million; "Miracle" at #6 with $4.4 million; "Eurotrip" at #7 with $4.1

million; "Welcome to Mooseport" at #8 with $3.3 million and "Barbershop 2:

Back in Business" at #9 with $3.1 million.

The controversy behind " The Passion of the Christ" helped wake up a slumbering box office, which had been looking at receipts that were down seven percent from 2003

for the year to date. The top 12 movies grossed $132.1 million, up more

than 53 percent from the same weekend a year ago.