"Maverick," with Mel Gibson in the title role of the legendary card shark of the Old West, galloped to an estimated $17.2 million at the box office in its opening weekend--the biggest debut for any film so far this year.
The large box-office total was welcome news to the film industry, which has seen sluggish ticket sales for the last six weeks. And, as the first major movie of the summer season, Warner Bros.' "Maverick" was also watched by the industry as an indicator of audience enthusiasm for the all-important period from Memorial Day in May to Labor Day in September, which traditionally accounts for about 40% of the year's ticket sales.
"The movie market has been in the doldrums for the last five or six weeks, but 'Maverick' jump-starts the marketplace," said Warner Bros.' distribution president Barry Reardon. "By the time 'Beverly Hills Cop III' and 'The Flintstones' open, you'll see the grosses rise to the traditional holiday levels."
"Beverly Hills Cop III," starring Eddie Murphy, opens nationally Wednesday, and "The Flintstones," a live-action movie based on the popular animated TV series from the 1960s, opens on Friday.
"Maverick" was showing on 2,537 screens, or 10% of all U.S. screens. Reardon said he expects the box office for the film to hold at about $17 million for the four days of the Memorial Day weekend.
The $17-million first weekend compared more than favorably to the opening on the same weekend a year ago of "Sliver" starring Sharon Stone, which took in $12 million, and "Hot Shots Part Deux," which did $10 million.
"Maverick's" strong showing came against a backdrop of some industry apprehension about the commercial appeal of the Western genre, which has largely fallen out of fashion. There have been notable exceptions, though, with such successful recent Westerns as "Dances With Wolves," "Unforgiven" and last December's "Tombstone."
The next test will come June 24 when Warner releases "Wyatt Earp," starring Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid in a three-hour-long film about the Western legend, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan.
"Maverick" drew generally mixed reviews, but theater owners had expected the film to play well based on the familiarity of the title from the original ABC television series that starred James Garner, and the star power of Gibson, Jodie Foster and Garner (who appears in the film). The movie was directed by Richard Donner.
"Maverick" commanded slightly more than 40% of all the tickets sold during the weekend. Reardon said that exit surveys showed 86% of the audience ranked the film "excellent" or "very good." He said 71% said they would recommend the movie.
Preliminary industry estimates of weekend box-office activity showed that the rest of the market was dominated by No. 2-ranked "The Crow," starring the late Brandon Lee, with $7.8 million, and No. 3-ranked "When a Man Loves a Woman," with Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan, $6.8 million. Director Spike Lee's "Crooklyn" took a 47% nose-dive at the box office, down to an estimated $2.4 million in its second weekend.
In fifth place was "Four Weddings and a Funeral," with $1.9 million; sixth was "With Honors," $1.6 million; seventh, "Three Ninjas Kick Back," $1.5 million.
In eighth: "No Escape," $700,000, followed by "Clean Slate," $665,000, and "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," $625,000.
Final box-office figures will be released today.