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'Avatar' midnight ticket sales: $3.5 million

December 18, 2009 | 12:20 pm

AvatarFans "Avatar" may be the highest-profile movie of the year, but it's not one that got out hordes of fans early in the morning.

James Cameron's new 3-D science-fiction flick grossed $3.54 million from shows that started at or soon after midnight today in the U.S. and Canada, according to distributor 20th Century Fox.

Despite the huge hype for the film, there turned out to be a relatively small number of Cameron devotees who came out to watch a two-hour-and-42-minute film after 12 a.m.

The top-grossing midnight debuts of all time, November's "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" and July's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" started off with $26.3 million and $22.2 million, respectively.

Those movies, like most with big midnight bows, were sequels or adaptations with a built-in fan base eager to see the newest installment of their favorite series as soon as possible.

The modest early-morning bow for "Avatar" may be a sign that the picture won't be driven by rabid fanboy interest on opening day, which often leads to fast falling ticket sales going forward. Instead, it will rely on marketing and word of mouth that, if strong, could see the picture play well through the holidays and into the new year.

Based on pre-release polling, the consensus among most studio executives has been that "Avatar" will open to roughly $80 million domestically this weekend. Early signs are good that it will meet or exceed that mark. 20th Century Fox Senior Vice President of Domestic Distribution Chris Aronson said that early-morning ticket sales are "light years ahead" of "I Am Legend," which opened to $77.2 million on Dec. 14, 2007, despite collecting only $1.7 million from its midnight screenings.

Aronson noted that 3-D screens, which carry a ticket price surcharge, are driving the vast majority of initial business for "Avatar." About 65% of this morning's ticket sales came from standard digital 3-D screens, and nearly 20% more was from giant-sized Imax 3-D screens.

That's a very good sign for Fox, as Cameron used pricey new 3-D technology to create the movie and much of the promotion has focused on it. The studio and its financing partners Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners need a big opening and a long run to turn "Avatar" into a success as they spent $310 million to produce the picture, a figure brought down to about $280 million after tax credits. In addition, Fox is spending about $150 million on worldwide marketing and distribution.

-- Ben Fritz

Photo: Fans line up for the premiere of "Avatar" in London last week. Credit: Daniel Deme/EPE.

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