Mel Gibson’s return poses no threat to ‘Avatar’s’ box-office reign

Mel Gibson still has his fans, but after a long and controversial absence from the big screen, his overall appeal seems to have faded.

The thriller “Edge of Darkness,” which marked Gibson’s first lead role since 2002’s “Signs,” opened to a fine but not fantastic $17.1 million from Friday through Sunday in the U.S. and Canada, according to an estimate from distributor Warner Bros.

It easily outperformed Walt Disney Studios’ romantic comedy “When in Rome,” the weekend’s other new movie, but “Avatar,” with $30 million, held the No. 1 spot for the seventh weekend in a row.

Opening-weekend ticket sales for “Edge of Darkness” were the lowest for any movie starring Gibson since 1995’s “Braveheart,” despite ongoing increases in ticket prices.

Still, “Edge of Darkness” should pay off for Warner, which paid $27 million to financier GK Films for rights to distribute the movie domestically.

Many in Hollywood were curious about the effect not just of Gibson’s long absence from the big screen, during which he directed “The Passion of the Christ” and “Apocalypto,” but also of his drunken anti-Semitic rant in 2006.

“Edge of Darkness” drew a primarily adult crowd of Gibson fans who probably remember his work in such action-oriented hits as “Mad Max,” “Lethal Weapon” and “The Patriot.” According to exit polls, 90% of ticket buyers were over 21, 56% were over 35, and 70% cited Gibson’s performance as their top reason for attending.

“I think it shows his star is still shining,” said Dan Fellman, Warner’s president of domestic distribution.

Interest in “Edge of Darkness” was more geographically diverse than usual. Theaters in mid-size markets such as Fresno, San Antonio and Plano, Texas, were among the top 15 for the film, a rarity.

Audiences gave “Edge of Darkness” a B-plus, according to market research firm CinemaScore, a portent of solid buzz and possibly only a mild drop next week.

“When in Rome,” starring Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel, launched to an unimpressive $12.1 million with crowds made up predominantly of young women and couples.

Chuck Viane, Disney’s president of distribution, called the start “really decent” and said he hoped it would hold up well over Super Bowl weekend, when more women go to theaters. “When in Rome” will face stiff competition for the young female crowd from tear-jerker “Dear John,” which opens Friday.

Audiences gave “When in Rome” a CinemaScore rating of B, which is an average mark from moviegoers.

Along with its chart-topping domestic receipts, “Avatar” added $95 million from 120 foreign countries this weekend, giving it a worldwide total of $2.04 billion.

Ticket sales for the James Cameron-directed 3-D spectacle dropped just 14% domestically and 12% internationally. If it continues to decline slowly and gets a boost from Academy Awards attention in the coming weeks, it will easily surpass $2.5 billion and could top $3 billion by the end of its run, making it phenomenally profitable for 20th Century Fox, Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Media.

Also overseas, Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” had a strong $9.6-million opening in France. It took the No. 1 spot in that country from “Avatar,” which had been top for six weekends. Disney’s first hand-drawn animated feature in six years has reached $78.3 million internationally, and it has yet to open in several major markets, including Britain. In the U.S. and Canada it is wrapping up its run with a relatively disappointing $100 million.

Of the films that opened in the U.S. the prior weekend, only 20th Century Fox and Walden Media’s family comedy “Tooth Fairy” held on well, dropping just 29% from its soft opening to $10 million. It now appears likely to out-gross “Legion,” which plummeted 61% to $6.8 million, even though that post-apocalyptic thriller from Sony Pictures’ Screen Gems label had the bigger debut.

Fox Searchlight more than doubled the theater count of its country-music film “Crazy Heart” to 239, taking advantage of the awards that star Jeff Bridges has won for his role and of the anticipation that Bridges will receive an Academy Award nomination Tuesday. The movie generated a solid $2.3 million this weekend, bringing its total to $6.6 million.