''Passion'' enjoys blockbuster opening day. Mel Gibson's controversial subtitled indie movie earns $15 million to 20 million from theatergoers nationwide

By Gary Susman
March 01, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

The faithful flocked to the Ash Wednesday opening of ”The Passion of the Christ.” So did the outraged, the agnostic, and the simply curious. According to The Hollywood Reporter, distributor Newmarket estimated that the first day’s tally would total $15 million to 20 million. That’s about the sixth best Wednesday opening ever, certainly the best such opening for an subtitled, controversial, ultraviolent, R-rated independent film debuting outside the summer and holiday peak moviegoing seasons.

The movie is playing on 4,643 screens at 3,006 theaters, an opening worthy of a big-budget summer action spectacle. Early expectations that the film would play better in middle America than in coastal urban centers appeared unfounded, as the film was doing blockbuster business everywhere. ”There are no weak spots geographically at this point,” Newmarket marketing and distribution VP Rob Schwartz told the Reporter. At this rate, the Reporter says, the film should easily coast to $60 million by Sunday; after the theaters take their cut (usually about half), Mel Gibson should earn back his $25 million investment before the week is out.

The movie has been drawing intense reactions, with many film critics saying that Gibson emphasizes the violent torture endured by Jesus at the expense of his teachings. That violence may have proved too much for one Wichita, Kansas, woman, who suffered a seizure during the crucifixion sequence and died minutes later at a nearby hospital, the Associated Press reports. The Wichita Eagle identified her as Peggy Law Scott, 57. An autopsy was to be conducted to determine the cause of death.