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'Avatar' adds $10 million to opening weekend box-office tally

December 21, 2009 | 12:36 pm

Saldana A stronger-than-expected Sunday boosted the weekend box-office total for "Avatar" by $10.3 million, a sign of strong momentum going into the holidays.

The James Cameron-directed 3-D adventure ended up selling $77 million of tickets in the U.S. and Canada, distributor 20th Century Fox said today. On Sunday morning, the studio estimated it would reach $73 million by the end of the day.

In the 106 foreign countries where "Avatar" debuted last week, it grossed $165.5 million through Sunday. The studio's estimate Sunday morning was $159.2 million.

Its final worldwide opening weekend total is $242.5 million.

Studios predict total weekend grosses on Sunday mornings based on Friday and Saturday ticket sales. It's rare that they significantly underestimate such figures. When it happens, it's usually a sign that word-of-mouth is particularly strong, resulting in a smaller drop from Saturday to Sunday than is typical.

In fact, domestic ticket sales for "Avatar" dropped only 3% from Saturday to Sunday -- aided, no doubt, by a slow Saturday night on the snow-covered East Coast. Overseas, ticket sales actually increased slightly.

The last two movies to significantly beat their Sunday morning estimates, "Paranormal Activity" and "Star Trek," went on to very long runs at the box office with modest declines each weekend.

Fox and its financing partners Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners are hoping to see the same trend for "Avatar" in order to earn a profit on their massive $280-million investment in production (after the benefit of tax credits). In addition, Fox spent about $150 million to market and distribute the movie worldwide.

The picture's strong Sunday performance and its average grade of "A" from moviegoers are signs that "Avatar" won't be leaving the top of the box-office charts anytime soon.

-- Ben Fritz

Photo: Zoe Saldana in "Avatar." Credit: Weta Digital / 20th Century Fox

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