Controversial filmmaker Mel Gibson's violent thriller "Apocalypto" found an opening weekend audience and topped the box office -- despite its subtitles, unknown cast and obscure subject matter.
The R-rated chase story set in the last days of the Maya empire drew solid but not spectacular crowds with $14.2 million in box-office receipts. To Walt Disney Co., the film's distributor, it overcame industry doubts about Gibson's marketability after his well-publicized anti-Semitic tirade and drunk-driving arrest this July in Malibu.
"They judged the movie, not the man," said Chuck Viane, Disney's president of distribution. "It's so hard to get noticed in this crowded marketplace, but here is a film that on its face said, 'I'm fresh, I'm creative, I'm different,' and people responded to that."
The movie's $14.2-million gross in the U.S. and Canada, according to Sunday estimates, reflected close competition from the frothy romantic comedy "The Holiday." "Apocalypto" soundly beat another new thriller, "Blood Diamond."
Only five movies this year have topped the weekend with grosses below $14 million. Gibson directed the film but did not appear in it. It remains unknown how Gibson's behavior might effect his on-screen appeal.
Men made up about 60% of the audience, Disney said. Set in the 16th century with dialogue in an ancient dialect, "Apocalypto" has garnered generally favorable reviews, although some critics have bristled at its gore and some historians have questioned its authenticity.
Gibson's self-financed film -- which cost as much as $80 million to produce, according to estimates -- attracted nowhere near the opening business of his previous effort, "The Passion of the Christ." The 2004 biblical epic was a stunning success that reaped $84 million in its first weekend alone.
But the solid opening for "Apocalypto" showed that Gibson remains popular as a filmmaker despite this summer's episode.
His two previous directorial efforts, "The Passion of the Christ" and 1995's Oscar-winning "Braveheart," grossed a combined $847 million worldwide.
Moviegoers interviewed after a Friday matinee in Santa Monica said the picture lived up to their expectations.
"It's not one I would see again because it was so brutal," said Bonnie Lee, 64, "but it was a very good movie."
Lee said she was drawn to the film because of her interest in the Maya civilization. She called Gibson's off-screen troubles "disappointing" but said, "I also know he's a great artist and all of his movies have been really good."
Bill Landegger, 46, said he enjoyed the film and was not bothered by the brutality.
"I thought it was very original," he said. "The Mayan civilization was very violent."
Attracting crowds that were 65% female, Sony Pictures' "The Holiday" opened at $13.5 million, finishing No. 2 for the weekend.
"People love this movie," Bruer said. "You get exactly what you're looking for and you come out of the theater with a smile on your face."
The film's director, Nancy Meyers, has built an impressive track record with three straight comedy hits: "Something's Gotta Give," "What Women Want" and "The Parent Trap."
Bruer noted that Meyers' last film, 2003's "Something's Gotta Give," showed powerful legs in the marketplace, ultimately grossing almost eight times its opening weekend total. A similar trajectory would put "The Holiday" in the $100-million range.
"The Holiday," which cost an estimated $85 million to make, received respectable reviews, though some critics dismissed it as fluff. Still, 88% of filmgoers surveyed rated it "excellent" or "very good," Bruer said.
The top new films knocked Warner Bros.' animated penguin musical "Happy Feet" and Sony's James Bond adventure "Casino Royale" to Nos. 3 and 4, respectively, after three straight weeks at the head of the box-office heap. Even so, "Happy Feet" raised its total to $137.7 million through four weekends, putting it on pace to ultimately top $200 million at the box office in the U.S. and Canada.
Warner's Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle "Blood Diamond" -- which the studio moved up a week from its originally scheduled release -- placed No. 5 with a less-than-expected $8.5 million. The R-rated film unfolds against the backdrop of civil war in 1990s Sierra Leone.
Some analysts questioned the wisdom of opening "Blood Diamond" against "Apocalypto," but Warner Bros. executives said the switch was aimed at building word of mouth before their film expands to smaller cities at Christmastime.
"Blood Diamond," which cost an estimated $100 million to produce, was launched at 1,910 theaters, versus 2,465 for "Apocalypto."
"We're in this for the long run, not the short haul," said Dan Fellman, Warner Bros.' distribution president.
Fellman noted that "Blood Diamond" saw a hefty 37% bump in business from Friday to Saturday, and that 92% of audience members surveyed rated it excellent or very good.
The modestly budgeted comedy "Unaccompanied Minors" also opened, faring about as expected in sixth place for Warner Bros. Described as a modern-day " 'Home Alone' in an airport," the film launched at $6.2 million.
Times staff writer Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to this report.
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Preliminary results (in millions) in the U.S. and Canada, based on studio projections
*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Apocalypto $14.2 $14.2
The Holiday 13.5 13.5
Happy Feet 12.7 137.7
Casino Royale 8.8 128.9
Blood Diamond 8.5 8.5
Unaccom- panied Minors 6.2 6.2
Deja Vu 6.1 53.0
The Nativity Story 5.6 15.8
Deck the Halls 3.9 30.1
The Santa Clause 3 3.3 77.2
*--* 3-day gross Change (in millions) from 2005 $96.0 -22.0%
Year-to-date gross Change (in billions) from 2005 $8.70 +5.2%
*--* Source: Media by Numbers Los Angeles Times