‘Apocalypto’ a box office wild card

Controversial Gibson film will roll out on 2,465 screens

Are moviegoers ready for Mel?

The biggest wild card at this weekend’s box office is Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto.”

Subtitled pic, set in an ancient Mayan kingdom and sporting extreme violence, skews to an all-male demo.

Pic will roll out on 2,465 screens.

But the big question is whether the helmer’s offset antics will turn off his fan base.

Notices so far have been solid, with talk of an awards season run, and Disney has mounted a concerted PR push to turn attention to the pic and not Gibson’s persona.

Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” took in more than $370 million domestically in 2004.

Meanwhile, women will want in on Columbia romantic comedy “The Holiday,” bowing at 2,610 playdates. Nancy Meyers pic stars Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jack Black and Jude Law.

And Warner Bros. is hoping to gain ground with political action film “Blood Diamond,” from director Ed Zwick and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Pic bows at 1,900 theaters.

Warners also is bowing “Unaccompanied Minors,” a “Home Alone”-like family pic set at an airport.

The rookies are duking it out over a frame that’s still crowded with long-legged holdovers “Happy Feet” and “Casino Royale.”

With so many prime pics elbowing for attention, the frame likely will be won with a relatively low B.O. tally.

Whichever pic wins the weekend, look for overall box office to plummet significantly from a year ago, when Disney rolled out the first pic in its “Chronicles of Narnia” franchise to $65.5 million.

In the arthouse world, David Lynch’s self-distribbed, experimental “Inland Empire” will roll out in limited release in Boston and Gotham.

Also bowing in limited rollouts are IFC’s “Family Law” on two and the Weinstein Co.’s “Days of Glory” in Los Angeles and Gotham.

On the foreign front, Sony’s “Casino Royale” should continue to cash in as the dominant pic in the international marketplace. As of Wednesday, offshore grosses had hit $212 million in 54 markets to lift worldwide total to $331 million — $100 million short of the final worldwide cume for 2002’s “Die Another Day.”

“Casino Royale” opens this weekend in Australia, New Zealand and Mexico. First-day grosses in Oz of $1.15 million at 405 playdates represented the best opening day for a Bond film in that market.

A pair of high-profile pics — Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” and a live-action version of “Charlotte’s Web” — will launch overseas this weekend prior to their U.S. openings. Warner will open “Letters” Saturday in Japan, 11 days ahead of the domestic bow; UIP bows “Charlotte’s Web” in Australia, where it was shot, a week before its Stateside debut.

UIP’s going day-and-date with “The Holiday” in Denmark, Russia, South Africa and the U.K., where the presence of stars Law and Winslet should generate traction.

“Apocalypto” will open day-and-date in Russia via a local distrib and go into Austria and Germany next weekend, with most other major markets launching in January.

The most-watched foreign expansion this weekend comes from domestic champ “Happy Feet,” which launches in Holland, Mexico, Spain and the U.K. in what’s expected to boost biz significantly from the current offshore cume of $15 million from 17 markets. Warner has opted for a gradual “Happy Feet” rollout outside the U.S. in order to time the openings to winter holidays and maximize appeal to the family demo.

Other openings include Fox’s “Deck the Halls” in Belgium, Brazil, Mexico and Poland; UIP’s “Flushed Away” in Germany and New Zealand; “The Nativity Story” in France, Germany and the U.K.; and Sony’s “Open Season” in Italy and Japan.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)