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The Passion of The Christ takes over $20 million on first day of US release

Story by: Jack Foley

THE religious debate surrounding The Passion of The Christ may still be raging, but audiences are flocking to see Mel Gibson's violent take on the last 12 hours of Jesus' life.

The film, which opened on Ash Wednesday, grossed more than $20 million (£10.7m) in its first day in cinemas, according to its distributor.

Despite initially struggling to find a backer for a US release, The Passion of the Christ was released in 3,006 cinemas in north America, and has had people turning out in droves - intriuged by both their own religious conviction and the controversy surrounding it.

The figures were presented by Bob Berney, president of privately-owned Newmarket Films, as evidence of the relevance of the film, even though box office tracking service, Exhibitor Relations, claimed Newmarket's figure included $3 million in group sales for Monday and Tuesday preview screenings.

With this in mind, the $23.6 million posted for the film's official first day makes it the fifth-biggest Wednesday opening of all time, according to Exhibitor Relations - the record being held by Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, with $34.4 million.

It also means that Gibson's labour of love has generated nearly as much in north American ticket sales as the $30 million the actor personally invested in it.

Berney was quick to label the movie 'a phenomenon', telling Reuters that the film owed its commercial success to a mix of Gibson's popularity, the broad appeal of its religious theme and weeks of intense media attention.

Its success will infuriate Jewish leaders even more, who have criticised it as a film that could foment anti-Semitism, by depicting Jews as collectively responsible for Jesus' crucifixion.

Yet Berney concluded: "It shows there is a vast, undeserved audience for a film like this, a religious film. I think people feel like Hollywood has not given them a film like this, and now they've stepped up and said, 'We're here'."

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