LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Mel Gibson’s bloody epic "Apocalypto" debuted as the No. 1 weekend movie. The Disney release set in the Mayan civilization and told in an obscure Mayan language, opened with $14.2 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
It was a modest haul compared with the $83.8-million opening weekend of Gibson’s last-helmed movie, the 2004 religious blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ," which went on to do $370 million domestically.
But "Apocalypto" overcame the baggage of Gibson’s personal troubles as well as its difficult subject matter, which features a no-name cast in an ultra-violent tale that includes beheadings and images of hearts ripped from people’s chests.
"The movie obviously succeeds on its own level. I think people probably are a bit on the surprised side around town that it’s No. 1," said Chuck Viane, head of distribution for Disney. "Two months ago, nobody would have bet on that."
Sony’s romance "The Holiday" debuted at No. 2 with $13.5 million. Directed by Nancy Meyers, the movie stars Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jack Black and Jude Law in the story of American and British women who swap homes for the holidays and find love in the process.
The Warner Bros. thriller "Blood Diamond," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou, opened at No. 5 with $8.5 million. Set against Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s, the film follows a mercenary pursuing a rare diamond.
Also from Warner Bros., the holiday comedy "Unaccompanied Minors," about a group of kids run amok while stranded at an airport on Christmas Eve, premiered at No. 6 with $6.2 million.
The Warner Bros. animated hit "Happy Feet" and Sony’s James Bond adventure "Casino Royale," which had been the top-two movies for three straight weekends, slipped to numbers 3 and 4, respectively.
"Happy Feet" took in $12.7 million, raising its total to $137.7 million. "Casino Royale" grossed $8.8 million, lifting its total to $128.9 million.
The overall box office fell sharply, with the top-12 movies grossing $86.8 million, down 25 per cent from the same weekend last year, when the blockbuster "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" opened with $65.6 million.
Disney reported that Gibson’s "Apocalypto" drew solid crowds across-the-board, with movie-goers equally split between men and women and the core of the audience ranging from 18 to 45.
The publicity over Gibson’s anti-semitic diatribe after being stopped by a patrol officer on suspicion of drunk driving _ and his contriteness since last summer _ may have stoked interested in "Apocalypto," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers.
"Whenever I tell people I saw the movie, they’d be like, ‘You saw it? How was it?’ There was a huge curiosity factor," Dergarabedian said. "A movie about Mayan civilization was never destined to be a big hit, let alone a No. 1 movie. But through Disney’s marketing, which highlights Mel Gibson _ I believe they associated him very closely with the movie _ I think that strategy paid off."
Following are estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theatres, according to Media By Numbers LLC. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "Apocalypto," $14.2 million.
2. "The Holiday," $13.5 million.
3. "Happy Feet," $12.7 million.
4. "Casino Royale," $8.8 million.
5. "Blood Diamond," $8.5 million.
6. "Unaccompanied Minors," $6.2 million.
7. "Deja Vu," $6.1 million.
8. "The Nativity Story," $5.6 million.
9. "Deck the Halls," $3.9 million.
10. "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause," $3.3 million