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'Passion of the Christ' reclaims the top spot

LOS ANGELES -- Many Christians made "The Passion of the Christ" a part of their Easter weekend, lifting the crucifixion saga back to the top box-office spot with $17.1 million.

Mel Gibson's bloody retelling of Christ's final hours raised its domestic total since opening on Ash Wednesday to $354.8 million, passing "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" for the No. 8 spot on the all-time domestic charts, just behind "Jurassic Park."

"The Passion" had been No. 1 its first three weekends, then fell back in the pack for the next three before claiming the top spot again.

"That's unprecedented. I've never seen that before. `The Passion' is just rewriting box-office history," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. "This is a holy day, and this movie is tailor-made for a weekend like this. It's not just a movie. It's a religious experience for many people."

"The Passion" easily fended off a rush of new movies. Disney's costly historical epic "The Alamo" opened weakly with $9.2 million, tying for No. 3 with Cedric the Entertainer's comedy "Johnson Family Vacation," according to studio estimates yesterday.

Other studios actually were tracking "Johnson Family Vacation" slightly ahead of "The Alamo," which could finish in fourth place when final numbers come out today. Making comparisons worse, "Johnson Family Vacation" put up the same numbers while playing in only half as many theaters as "The Alamo."

Disney faces a big loss on "The Alamo," a chronicle of the 1830s last stand whose budget swelled to about $100 million.

Starring Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett and Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston, "The Alamo" had been scheduled for release last December and caught bad headlines after Disney delayed it for four months to give director John Lee Hancock more time in the editing room. Hancock took over as director after Ron Howard backed out.

"The Alamo" drew mixed reviews, with some critics calling it a historical bore and others praising its authenticity and rousing battle sequences.

"We're disappointed, mostly because we think we made a really good film," said Chuck Viane, Disney's head of distribution. "I'm shocked, quite honestly, at the number. If I could only figure out what went wrong, you'd never let it happen again. The movie deserved better than it did."

Finishing ahead of "The Alamo" was the previous weekend's top movie, "Hellboy," which came in at No. 2 with $11.1 million.

Three other new movies finished at the bottom of the top 10. "The Whole Ten Yards," Bruce Willis and Matthew Perry's sequel to their hit-man comedy "The Whole Nine Yards," premiered at No. 8 with $6.7 million, less than half the $13.7 million the first movie did over opening weekend in February 2000.

Anne Hathaway's fairy-tale comedy "Ella Enchanted" opened ninth with $6.1 million. "The Girl Next Door," with Emile Hirsch as a youth who falls for an ex-porn star (Elisha Cuthbert), debuted in 10th place with $6 million.

Despite so-so showings for new movies, the overall box office rose for the seventh straight weekend. The top 12 movies took in just under $100 million, up 13 percent from the same weekend a year ago.

Newmarket Films, which distributed Gibson's "The Passion," had expected Easter weekend to provide a solid bump for the film. Rob Schwartz, Newmarket head of distribution, said "The Passion" could top $400 million.

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