March 02, 2004 11:41 AM

The Easter season is expected to give an even greater boost to the steadily climbing box office of PEOPLE coverboy Mel Gibson’s controversial “The Passion of the Christ,” reports the Associated Press.

The film’s distributor, Newmarket Films, announced Monday that “The Passion,” by earning $125.2 million, had surpassed the $124.1 million opening of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” to become the biggest debut ever by a film opening on a Wednesday — Ash Wednesday, in this case.

The $125.2 million figure is nearly $8 million more than Newmarket first estimated, because far more people turned out on Sunday to witness Gibson’s graphically violent crucifixion recreation than the distributor had originally predicted. Business was particularly strong in the so-called Bible belt (such heartland cities as Dallas, Houston and Oklahoma City).

“I think we’ll see strong bookings leading up to Easter (April 11), and I would anticipate Easter would be a huge weekend,” Bruce Davey, Gibson’s partner at his film company, Icon Productions, tells AP. Industry estimates say that the cumulative North American gross could hit $300 million.

The movie, which stars Jim Caviezel as Christ, has deeply divided religious communities. Church groups have bought out entire theaters for screenings, while some Jewish and Christian leaders say “The Passion” could revive the notion that Jews were collectively responsible for Christ’s death.

As quoted in Tuesday’s New York Times, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch opined at an Oscar night party, “I think Mel Gibson should get the Leni Reifenstahl Award for what he did.” (Reifenstahl, an acclaimed filmmaker, shot documentaries for Adolf Hitler.)

Koch added, according to The Times: “I heard Mel Gibson say, ‘I love Jews and I pray for them.’ We need him to pray for us? I should be praying for him and his soul.”

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