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<i>Da Vinci Code</i> makes record debut

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Cannes (Reuters): All the protests and all the bad reviews could not prevent The Da Vinci Code from recording a 224 million dollars worldwide opening, the second-biggest debut ever at the global box office, its distributor today said. The controversial adaptation of Dan Brown's best-selling novel, the story of a Vatican cover-up involving Jesus Christ and his supposed offspring, sold about 77 million dollars worth of tickets at movie theaters in the United States and Canada during its first three days, according to Columbia Pictures.

Box-office watchers had predicted a North American opening of between 50 million dollars and 80 million dollars for the most eagerly awaited movie of the year. The biggest North American opening this year had been 68 million dollars for Ice Age: The Meltdown seven weeks ago but The Da Vinci Code numbers were still far from the 115 million dollars record held by 2002's Spider-Man. The Da Vinci Code earned about 147 million dollars overseas, the biggest international opening ever. The previous record was last year's Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith with 145 million dollars, Columbia said. The total haul of 224 million dollars ranks No. 2 behind the 253 million dollars tally for the Star Wars movie, the studio said.

In the film's 90 foreign markets, it ranked as the No. 1 opening of all time in Italy (11.4 million dollars) and Spain (11 million dollars), and No. 1 or No. 2 of all time throughout South America, all heavily Catholic territories. It made the all-time top-10 in Britain (15.7 million dollars) and decidedly non-Christian Japan (11.3 million dollars). The strong sales came despite-or because of an onslaught of protests and publicity not seen since another religious movie, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, earned 84 million dollars domestically during its first weekend in February 2004. It grossed 612 million dollars worldwide.

''The book became more than a book and the movie became more than a movie,'' said Valerie Van Galder, president of domestic marketing at Sony Corp. owned Columbia. ''It became a perfect storm.'' Brown's fictional premise-that Jesus Christ had a child with Mary Magdalene and that their bloodline survived through the ages-was a huge hit at bookstores, with more than 40 million copies sold around the world.

Some Christians, particularly Catholics, were angered by the story and have mounted a high-profile offensive against director Ron Howard's movie adaptation, which stars Tom Hanks and French actress Audrey Tautou. A Catholic lay organization, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, took out full-page ads in USA Today on Friday calling for worshipers to stage prayer vigils outside at least 1,000 theaters nationwide. Other church groups have welcomed the opportunity to use the film as a starting point for discussion about the Bible, as has American Atheists, which says the same level of scrutiny applied to the book and film also should be used to question all other religious claims.

On the heels of the the film's Thursday premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, critics joined the chorus of naysayers, overwhelmingly lambasting it as ''grim,'' ''unwieldy'' and ''plodding.'' It did get a respectable review from America's best-known movie critic, Roger Ebert, who called it ''preposterously entertaining.'' Sony, the film's producer Imagine Entertainment, and the movie's stars have stressed that the movie is merely entertainment-and moviegoers appeared to agree.

Elsewhere at the domestic box office, DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc.'s animated barnyard tale ''Over the Hedge'' opened at No. 2 with 37.2 million dollars. After two weeks at No. 1, Paramount Pictures' Mission: Impossible III fell to No. 3 with $11 million. The film's total stands at 103.2 million dollars. After a disastrous $22 million opening last weekend, Warner Bros. Pictures' sinking-ship thriller ''Poseidon'' fell two places to No. 4 with 9 million dollars, taking its total to 36.8 million dollars. The studio expects the 160 million dollars film to end up with 60 million dollars domestically and hopes for a boost from international sales.

Read more about: ron howard, da vinci code, dan brown
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