'Passion' powers B.O. to $698 mil

Newmarket grabbed the top spot at the March box office, generating $200 million — a remarkable figure that’s on par with what a top distrib generates during a summer or holiday month.

Overall, March B.O. clocked in at $698 million, a 7% increase over the same frame a year ago. Unspooling at least one film a week, Warner Bros. took second place with $150 million. Disney took third at $94 million, followed by Sony at $74 million and Universal at $48 million.

The predominant box office markets during March according to Nielsen EDI were the Northeast and Pacific regions, which combined generated about 45% of the play period’s ticket sales.

Even though “The Passion of the Christ” held the top spot at the weekend box office for two out of the four weekends during March, pic’s ability to hold up business against frosh bows forged a vibrant B.O. marketplace. With the exception of one frame last month, it was quite common for the top four films at the weekend box office to generate more than $10 million each.

Also per EDI, “Passion” played strongly throughout March in the Bible Belt’s Southeast and South-central regions, where pic grossed 32% of its monthly take. The Northeast was the next largest market for “Passion” at 21%.

Despite the absence of any record bows last month, the average opening for a wide release did uptick 18% to $15 million over March 2003. The average decline for a wide bow’s second weekend remained steady at 45%, though U’s “Dawn of the Dead” repped one of the largest second-weekend drops for a No. 1 bow — 60% — since November’s “The Matrix Revolutions.” “Dawn’s” decline is in line with the sophomore seshes of last summer’s tentpoles “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.”

The top 10 films for the period of March 1-28 were Newmarket’s “Passion,” $193 million; WB-Dimension’s “Starsky & Hutch,” $78 million; Disney’s “Hidalgo,” $57 million; U’s “Dawn of the Dead,” $46 million; Sony’s “Secret Window,” $41 million; WB’s “Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed,” $32 million; Sony’s “50 First Dates,” $28 million; WB’s “Taking Lives,” $23 million; MGM’s “Agent Cody Banks: Destination London,” $22 million; and Focus Features’ “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” $18 million.

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