`Passion' goes into scores more theaters


LOS ANGELES - Films that start out big in the marketplace usually see their circulation shrink within a few weeks, but that's not the case with The Passion of the Christ.

In anticipation of Good Friday and Easter coming up, Mel Gibson's film about the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus expanded again last week by 194 venues to 3,408 theaters. That theater count will make The Passion the most widely circulated film in the marketplace.

While many films start out in a smaller number of theaters - 1,000 to 2,000 - and work their way up, The Passion made its debut on an already high venue count of 3,043. When a film starts at that level, there's usually nowhere to go but down.

"I think it's a smart move," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office watcher Exhibitor Relations. "They're anticipating increased demand so they're making it more available."

But The Passion has proved to be an atypical film. With $319 million in gross receipts thus far, it is poised to move into the top 10 in all-time domestic box-office receipts. Opening on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, it was the top film its first three weeks in theaters, second in its fourth week. It dropped to sixth place this past weekend.

The $30 million-budgeted Passion was produced and financed by Gibson's Icon Productions and distributed by independent Newmarket Films. It is by far the most successful independently released film and the best-performing "R"-rated film ever in the United States.

Box-office watchers are wondering whether it can rebound to the top of the box-office chart over the next two weekends, particularly this weekend.

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