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LOS ANGELES — 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 was beaten by “Avatar,” which held the No. 1 spot for the seventh weekend in a row with $30 million.


Opening-weekend ticket sales for “Edge of Darkness” were the lowest for any movie starring Gibson since “Braveheart,” which started with $9.9 million in 1995, when ticket prices were 42 percent lower than in 2009, according to Hollywood.com . Adjusting for the difference in ticket prices, the two movies’ opening sales were about equal.


Still, the opening should pay off for Warner Bros., which paid $27 million to financier GK Films for rights to distribute the movie domestically.


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


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


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


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


Audiences gave “Edge of Darkness” an average grade of B+, according to market research firm CinemaScore, a portent of solid buzz and possibly only a mild drop next week


“When in Rome,” which stars Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel, launched to an unimpressive $12.1 million with crowds made up predominantly of young women and couples. Chuck Viane, distribution president for Disney, called the debut “really decent” and said he hoped it would hold up well next week against the Super Bowl, when more women go to theaters. However, “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 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 percent domestically and 12 percent internationally. If it continues those declines 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 on top for the last six weekends. Disney’s first hand-drawn animated feature in six years has reached $78.3 million internationally, and 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 last weekend in the U.S., only 20th Century Fox and Walden Media’s family comedy “The Tooth Fairy” held on well, dropping just 29 percent from its soft opening to $10 million. It now appears likely to ultimately outgross “Legion,” which plummeted 61 percent 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 string of awards that star Jeff Bridges has won and anticipation of an Academy Award nomination Tuesday. It generated a solid $2.25 million this weekend, bringing its total to $6.6 million.

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