LOS ANGELES -- A sci-fi love story has given way to an earthbound romance at the box office, livening up typically slow times at theaters over Super Bowl weekend.
Released by Sony's Screen Gems banner, "Dear John" debuted as the No. 1 movie with $32.4 million, knocking off "Avatar" after seven weekends in first place, according to studio estimates Sunday.
"It is very cool to know that it was our movie that audiences just totally embraced and made No. 1 for the weekend," said Rory Bruer, head of distribution at Sony. As for runaway blockbuster "Avatar," he quipped, "I think they're going to be fine in the long run."
"Avatar" slipped to No. 2 with $23.6 million, raising its domestic total to $630.1 million. Directed by James Cameron, 20th Century Fox's "Avatar" surpassed his own "Titanic," which had held the domestic revenue record at $600.8 million.
With a record $2.2 billion worldwide, "Avatar" also has soared past the $1.8 billion "Titanic" took in globally.
Factoring in today's higher admission prices, however, "Avatar" has sold fewer tickets than "Titanic."
"Avatar" had been No. 1 domestically longer than any movie since 1997's "Titanic," which held on at first place for 15 weekends. The studio was unconcerned that "Avatar" finally fell out of the top spot.
"It had to happen sometime," said 20th Century Fox distribution executive Bert Livingston. "There's nothing that could disappoint me with this movie."
By the eighth weekend, most Hollywood movies have long since dropped out of the top 10 rankings.
"Avatar" still is going strong after eight weeks, with the added luster of a monthlong buildup to the Academy Awards on March 7. Following the example of Oscar champ "Titanic," "Avatar" tied for the lead at the Academy Awards with nine nominations and is a front-runner to win best picture.
Fox executives would not speculate what number "Avatar" eventually might hit at the box office.
"Who knows what that is? It just keeps on going," Livingston said.
The weekend's other new wide release, Lionsgate's spy story "From Paris With Love," opened at No. 3 with $8.1 million. The movie stars John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as CIA men trying to crack a terrorist plot.
Fox Searchlight's acclaimed country-music tale "Crazy Heart" expanded from narrow release and broke into the top 10, coming in at No. 8 with $3.7 million. Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal have acting Oscar nominations for the film, which follows a boozy country star trying to turn his life around.
While "Avatar" features a human-alien romance light-years away, "Dear John" centers on a long-distance love story between a soldier (Channing Tatum) and his sweetheart (Amanda Seyfried) back home.
"Dear John" had a record opening for Super Bowl weekend, topping the $31.1 million debut for "Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert" in 2008.
The movie was based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, whose Hollywood adaptations such as "The Notebook" and "A Walk to Remember" have been steady draws for women. Female crowds made up 84 percent of the audience for "Dear John," according to Sony.
Sparks "creates these stories that really pull at your heartstrings, and certainly that may be first and foremost for women rather than men, though I think a few of us have hearts, too," Bruer said. "But his stories really resonate and are very compelling for women."
That bodes well for the movie over Valentine's Day weekend, said Geoffrey Ammer, head of marketing for Relativity Media, which produced "Dear John." Valentine's weekend draws big date crowds, with women often picking which film to see.
Business on Sunday was predictably slow as football fans watched the Super Bowl instead of going to the movies. But "Dear John" already exceeded industry expectations with $26.2 million on Friday and Saturday.
"Super Bowl weekend isn't about men. It's about women," said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com. "This counter-programming strategy just absolutely works, the female audience propelling a movie to unprecedented heights."
Hollywood could use more fresh hits like "Dear John" if it hopes to match 2009's record box office pace. The first couple of weeks this year, "Avatar" had revenue and attendance running well ahead of last year.
But revenues have now declined for four straight weekends. So far in 2010, domestic revenues are at $1.2 billion, 1.5 percent ahead of last year's, according to Hollywood.com.
Factoring in higher ticket prices this year, though, movie attendance is down 0.5 percent.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "Dear John," $32.4 million.
2. "Avatar," $23.6 million.
3. "From Paris With Love," $8.1 million.
4. "Edge of Darkness," $7 million.
5. "The Tooth Fairy," $6.5 million.
6. "When in Rome," $5.5 million.
7. "The Book of Eli," $4.8 million.
8. "Crazy Heart," $3.7 million.
9. "Legion," $3.4 million.
10. "Sherlock Holmes," $2.6 million.