Blighty blesses 'Passion' with top slot

Exhibs in Britain who had no great hopes for “The Passion of the Christ” were counting their blessings after the biblical epic delivered a bountiful harvest last weekend — though it needed to include previews to claim top spot, ahead of fellow frosh “Dawn of the Dead” and “Starsky & Hutch’s” second weekend wide.

“How wrong were we to think this was a film which had limited arthouse appeal and a particular interest to religious devotees?” one U.K. booker confessed. Some programmers had scaled back their expectations after the pic failed to resonate strongly in Catholic Ireland, where it wasn’t embraced by the young folks who comprise the biggest cinemagoing demo.

“Passion’s” $3.6 million bow on 322 prints included $568,000 in sneaks. Result brings the U.K./Ireland tally to $5 million.

Mel Gibson’s drama smashed Fox opening records in Argentina (notching $925,000 on 132, beating “Titanic”), and Venezuela ($353,000 on 78, an industry high, outgunning “The Matrix Reloaded.”

Crucifixion saga reigned in its second chapter in Mexico, grossing $3.1 million (falling by a reasonable 38%), spurring the market cume to a stellar $11 million; and in Brazil, where it improved by 4% to $1.9 million, advancing to $4.9 million.

Pic nailed an estimated $364,000 on 41 in Taiwan, behind fellow debutante “Taking Lives,” which captured $536,000, with sneaks.

Icon reported No. 1 bows for the harrowing drama in South Africa ($571,000), Norway, Finland and Hungary. “Passion” racked up an estimated $16 million, propelling the cume to $58.7 million in 36 territories, led by Australia’s $8.8 million and Poland’s $6.2 million. Pic dropped by 30% after a muted bow in Germany, mustering $4.8 million thus far.

“Starsky & Hutch” collared $3.4 million in Blighty (off 32%), hoisting its territory total a terrif $14.7 million. The Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson headliner rang up a sturdy $2 million on 628 in Germany, where the TV series wasn’t as popular.

In its offshore preem, “Dawn of the Dead” spooked up a potent $3.5 million on 338 in the U.K., including previews.

“Brother Bear” banked $10.2 million, driving its cume to $129.8 million. Family pic conquered Spain, its final major market, whistling up $2.6 million on 441, the biggest toon debut in spring locally — and in local currency the third best for an animated pic behind “Finding Nemo” and “Tarzan.” “Bear” also ruled Switzerland, snaring $680,000 on 103, and fetched $3 million in its second turn in Germany (still No. 1, easing by 31%), upping the territory total to $8.5 million. It’s pocketed a lively $8 million through its third in Japan and $7.7 million after its fourth in Italy.

“Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed” rustled up $1.8 million from good but not outstanding bows in eight territories, coming tops in Sweden ($267,000 on 105), Singapore ($369,000 on 35), the Philippines and Malaysia.

“Peter Pan” conjured up a respectable $1.3 million on 358 in Spain, and its cume hit $50.3 million in 48 markets, overtaking domestic’s skimpy $48.3 million.

“50 First Dates” romanced $2.2 million on 291 in Australia, a clear No. 1, marking a career best for Adam Sandler, toppling “Big Daddy.” “The Haunted Mansion” pulled in a perky $1 million on 191 in Italy and a passable $933,000 on 232 in Oz, positioned for the Easter vacation, and its cume hit $63.2 million.

Winding its tour in Japan, “Something’s Gotta Give” drew a modest $1.1 million on 218. Helmer Nancy Meyers’ romantic comedy has grossed an admirable $118.4 million.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” minted $5 million in 57 territories, sending the cume to $718 million and the global total to $1.092 billion.

“Hidalgo” is plotting an erratic course abroad, drumming up an impressive $4.8 million through its third sojourn in Spain, ranking first in Denmark but corpsing in France ($765,000 on 349) and plunging after a mediocre debut Down Under.

(Archie Thomas in London contributed to this report.)

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