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High noon for Mel’s ‘Passion’

Do distribs have too many eggs in B.O. basket?

This article was updated at 6:45 p.m.

A surge of Easter-weekend business for “The Passion of the Christ” will pump life into a busy box office frame catering to every demographic segment.

Weekend will have five wide openers, including Disney’s much bruited historical drama “The Alamo” and “Ella Enchanted,” a venture into the family business from Miramax. But given the crowded session, some distribs may end up with more egg on their faces than in their holiday baskets.

Bolstering the frame: 80% of the nation’s schoolkids are off for Good Friday. Also, the market has been buoyant of late, with year-to-date grosses up 7% due to the “Passion” phenom.

“The business is on a roll compared to last year as we head into the Easter holiday period,” said Dan Marks, exec veep at B.O. tracker Nielsen EDI. “So even though there are five new pictures, the marketplace could expand over the weekend to accommodate the high number of wide releases.”

New pics include “The Alamo,” a historical drama that Disney’s set for 2,609 engagements; “The Girl Next Door,” a New Regency-produced teen laffer 20th Century Fox is distribbing to 2,148 theaters; “Johnson Family Reunion,” a Fox Searchlight urban laffer unspooling in 1,318 locations; “The Whole Ten Yards,” a sequel laffer from Warner Bros. with 2,654 playdates; and “Ella Enchanted,” a family fantasy Miramax is releasing in 1,931 venues. Also, Revolution Studio’s comic-spawned actioner “Hellboy” will be hoping to repeat its chart-topping perf of last weekend.

In its sixth session in release, “The Passion of the Christ” is expected to post a significant uptick from the $10.6 million it grossed last weekend. Pic, distribbed by Newmarket, will have more than 3,400 runs this weekend. Estimates range from the low teens to as high as $20 million on the frame.

Church groups — who bolstered early “Passion” grosses by buying blocs of advance tickets — are expected to be back in force over the Easter weekend. Distrib execs also cite evidence of repeat patronage for the controversial religious drama.

“We probably will see some organized trips again this weekend,” Newmarket prexy Bob Berney said. “But what’s more important is that the Easter theme will drive a lot of individuals to the film.”

“Passion,” which delivered last weekend’s fifth-best B.O. perf, was the second top grosser Tuesday after “Hellboy” in pushing its 42-day cume to a fervent $334 million.

“Hellboy,” which bowed with $23.2 million, would gross $14 million this weekend if it slides a relatively modest 40% over its soph session. Though rated PG-13, “Hellboy” has been a modestly difficult sell in some small markets, in part due to fundamental Christians’ queasiness with pic’s name. But reviews have been good, so positive buzz should sustain opening momentum.

“We should have a strong second weekend,” Sony distribution prexy Rory Bruer. “I don’t know if we’ll be No. 1, but we’ll certainly be in the game.”

Meanwhile, “Alamo” may need good reviews and positive word of mouth to sustain a successful run, as pre-release tracking indicates pic’s opening may be limited to somewhere in the teen millions.

Prospects for other new pics appear less auspicious.

Fox hopes enough patrons come calling for “The Girl New Door” — helmed by Luke Greenfield (“The Animal”). Industry projections are of a bow in the single-digit millions. Searchlight’s “Johnson Family Reunion” will have to cross over into mainstream success to gross much more than $10 million.

“The Whole Ten Yards” has drawn skeptical early reviews, so its weekend perf will also bear watching. Industryites suggest Bruce Willis-Matthew Perry vehicle will chug into the low to mid-teen millions at best.

“Ella Enchanted” enters a marketplace already accommodating a pair of family films — “Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed” and “Home on the Range.” Pic figures to gross in the single-digital millions.

Miramax also unspools Italian drama “I’m Not Scared” in four locations. Frame’s other limited releases include Eros’ Bollywood pic “Masti,” set for 27 theaters.

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