In the two weeks since its release, Gibson's telling of the Gospel story of the torture and death of Jesus has grossed more than $214 million domestically. That puts it more than one-third along the way to catching "Titanic," which grossed $603 million in North America in 1997.
Conservative estimates project "Passion's" eventual U.S. gross to amount to more than $350 million. Paul Brooks, executive producer of the 2002 independent hit "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," already sees "Passion" overtaking "Wedding" as the biggest independent hit ever -- and thinks Gibson's movie could take advantage of a confluence of trends to become the top grosser overall.
"You have, in my view, a perfect American cultural storm," said Brooks. "You have the emotional power of religion in this country, and you have the emotional power of movies, combined with an evangelical movie star on top, creating, I think, this extraordinary tidal wave that you're seeing."
Brooks was a guest on "The Politics of Culture," a program of Los Angeles public radio station KCRW with Daily Variety reporter Claude Brodesser. Another guest on the panel, veteran producer Tom Sherak, said "Passion" will benefit from repeat business. Sherak, a partner in Revolution Studios, said he had seen estimates that 80 percent of the audience for "Passion" are people who typically do not go to movies.
"That's an incredible number," he said.
Of that number, Sherak said, 30 percent intend to see the movie more than once. However, Sherak doubted that "Passion" could sustain the kinds of numbers necessary to overtake "Titanic" at the top of the box-office heap.
"When you remember how long 'Titanic' ran at $20 million a weekend, and how many girls went to see it five, six, seven times," said Sherak, "it's very hard unless you're a movie fanatic -- and these ('Passion' viewers) aren't movie fanatics."
However, Brooks said the potential is there for that kind of repeat business for Gibson's movie.
"It's a platform for the evangelicals, and maybe more than that, to keep going back, and going back, and going back because they have to support what this film is saying about their religion," he said. "It is an absolutely profound cultural statement. It's a missionary statement if you will."
Sherak wondered if "Passion" could put up "Titanic"-sized grosses without support from the broader base of moviegoers.
"I think it's a question of whether they will eventually get just moviegoers -- not just churchgoers," he said.
Sherak gave credit to "Passion" for expanding the movie marketplace for the first time in years.
Gibson's movie added more than $53 million to its gross over the past weekend, at the same time as "Starsky & Hutch" opened with $28 million and "Hidalgo" debuted with $19 million. Overall, the U.S. box-office was up 30 percent from the comparable weekend last year.
One panelist suggested that at least some of "Passion's" box-office success was attributable to peer pressure. The Rev. Welton Gaddy -- president of The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation -- said he heard complaints from a community in Louisiana that "many evangelicals" are making attendance at the movie a test of a person's spirituality.
"If you say you're not going to see it," said Gaddy, "then they ask what in the world is wrong with you? What do you have against religion? It's no wonder the film has made $214 million. It has become embraced by people who usually don't even look at movies and is being used by them to talk about their faith in ways they haven't always had an opportunity to."
Gaddy is a Baptist minister at Northminster Church in Monroe, La.
However, Francis X. Maier -- chancellor and special assistant to the archbishop of Denver -- said that from his observation, there isn't much evidence to support the notion that the movie is generating any hostility.
"I think it's driving (viewers) to take their beliefs more seriously," he said, "and anyone who seriously pursues a love of God is going to be more tolerant of other people and other beliefs."
Maier, a former editor in chief of the Roman Catholic newsweekly The National Catholic Register, said the movie may have benefited from controversy in its early stages, but he expected word of mouth to sustain attendance among Christians over the coming weeks.
"The movie draws them into what they believe and they have to deal with it in a way that American culture prevents them from dealing with the realities of the cross," he said.