‘Passion’ still No. 1

The Passion of the Christ” continues to rule the box office, earning $31.7 million during its third weekend of release and pushing its overall total beyond a quarter of a billion dollars.

Mel Gibson’s dramatization of Christ’s final hours climbed to $264 million in the United States and Canada after 19 days in theaters, according to studio estimates.

With solid receipts expected through Easter on April 11, “The Passion” is on track to gross between $350 million and $400 million, said Rob Schwartz, head of distribution for Newmarket Films, which handled the release.

Johnny Depp’s psychological horror tale “Secret Window,” based on a Stephen King story about an author accused of plagiarism by a stalker, debuted in second place with $19 million.

The weekend’s other two big releases had so-so openings. Frankie Muniz’s spy caper “Agent Cody Banks: Destination London” was No. 5 with $8 million, barely half the $14.1 million opening weekend of “Agent Cody Banks” last year.

“The Passion” lifted Hollywood to its third-straight uptick in revenues after a long slump in January and February. The top 12 movies grossed $104.1 million, up 15 percent from the same weekend last year.

Before “The Passion” opened, Hollywood revenue was running 7 percent behind last year’s. Revenues now are 3 to 4 percent ahead of 2003’s, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.

“‘The Passion’ has single-handedly made what was turning out to be a pretty lousy year into a really good year so far,” Dergarabedian said.

Playing in 3,221 theaters, “The Passion” averaged $9,830 a cinema, a huge number for a movie in its third weekend. “Secret Window” averaged $6,296 in 3,018 theaters, “Agent Cody Banks” did $2,691 in 2,973 cinemas and “Spartan” averaged $2,440 in 832 locations.

Starring Jim Caviezel as Christ, “The Passion” continues to draw well among church groups that helped make it a religious blockbuster, but the film is packing in much broader audiences, said Newmarket’s Schwartz.

“It’s a large cross-section of America,” Schwartz said. “It’s not just church groups going at this point. It’s way beyond that.”

Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore’s romantic comedy “50 First Dates” had a $5.3 million weekend and pushed its total to $106.6 million, following “The Passion” as the second movie released in 2004 to cross the $100 million mark.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.

1. “The Passion of the Christ,” $31.7 million.

2. “Secret Window,” $19 million.

3. “Starsky & Hutch,” $16 million.

4. “Hidalgo,” $11.7 million.

5. “Agent Cody Banks: Destination London,” $8 million.

6. “50 First Dates,” $5.3 million

7. “Twisted,” $3.1 million.

8. “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” $2.4 million.

9. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” $2.05 million.

10. “Spartan,” $2 million.

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