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First look: 'Avatar,' 'Sherlock,' 'Alvin' lead huge Christmas weekend at box office

December 27, 2009 |  9:05 am

Avatar Hollywood got the best Christmas gift it could imagine as moviegoers packed theaters and the industry racked up one holiday success after another, with only one disappointment marring the weekend.

20th Century Fox's 3-D event film "Avatar" led the box office with a studio-estimated $75-million take in the U.S. and Canada. Its minuscule drop of just 3% from last weekend's opening is a sign of extremely strong word of mouth and is continuing to fuel industry buzz that it could end up as one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, alongside "Avatar" director James Cameron's "Titanic." That would easily justify the massive $430 million that Fox and its financing partners invested in production and marketing.

"Avatar" has grossed $212.3 million domestically in just 10 days. As with other pictures, international grosses weren't available yet early this morning.

The new adaptation of "Sherlock Holmes" starring Robert Downey Jr. was also a hit this weekend, opening to a very strong $65.4 million domestically. Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Entertainment spent $90 million to produce the movie after the benefit of British tax credits, putting them in a very good financial starting position.

Fox's family film "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," meanwhile, grossed $50.2 million for the weekend. With healthy ticket sales on its first two days in theaters, Wednesday and Thursday, it has grossed a total of $77.1 million in five days. Fox and New Regency Entertainment spent $70 million to produce the follow-up to 2007's original big-screen version of the singing rodents and appear to have  another hit on their hands.

The top three movies were drawing audiences of all ages, particularly families going out together for the holiday. Two other films aimed primarily at adults also did well, although one other movie missed the mark.

Universal Pictures' romantic comedy "It's Complicated" opened to a solid $22.1 million. That's the second-highest debut ever for a movie directed by Nancy Meyers, after 2000's "What Women Want." Her pictures usually appeal to adult females, who often don't turn out on opening weekend and wait until they hear recommendations. Word of mouth on "It's Complicated," which stars Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, will probably be positive as early audiences gave it an average grade of A-minus, according to market research firm CinemaScore. That means it could easily turn a profit on the roughly $85 million that Universal and Relativity Media spent on production.

The George Clooney drama "Up in the Air," which has performed very well in limited release the last three weeks and earned six Golden Globe nominations, went nationwide this weekend and grossed $11.8  million. That's a pretty good, though not great, performance for an adult drama with serious themes. Paramount Pictures, which financed the movie with Montecito Picture Co. for $25 million, is hoping it will continue to rack up award nominations and Ninetrophies and perform well through the winter. So far it has sold a total of $24.5 million worth of tickets domestically.

The weekend's single disappointment was "Nine." The Broadway musical adaptation from the Weinstein Co. opened to a weak $5.5 million, bringing its total since last Friday to $5.9 million. Unless it picks up momentum from awards and audience buzz, it could be a major money loser for the struggling Weinstein Co. and its financing partner Relativity Media. Together they spent about $64 million to make the movie, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicole Kidman.

Every studio is looking forward to a very strong week, with most children out of school and many people not working until the new year and no new films opening Friday.

-- Ben Fritz

Top photo: Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in "Avatar." Credit: 20th Century Fox

Bottom photo: A scene from "Nine." Credit: David James / The Weinstein Co.