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First look: 'Avatar' slowed by snow in U.S., explodes overseas for $232.2-million worldwide opening

December 20, 2009 |  9:30 am

Avatar

Heavy snowfall on the East Coast slowed 20th Century Fox's high-stakes opening of "Avatar" to a solid but not spectacular studio-estimated $73 million this weekend in the U.S. and Canada, while international ticket sales totaled a spectacular $159.2 million.

Domestic grosses for the James Cameron-directed 3-D tent-pole movie declined from Friday to Saturday, an unusual occurrence for a movie without popular midnight screenings or poor word of mouth, and a sign of just how badly it was hurt by the fact that potential audiences from Washington, D.C., to New England stayed home because of the dangerous roads and frigid weather.

Although $73 million is nothing for Fox to get upset about, it's a bit below the December 2007 release many in the industry were comparing it to, "I Am Legend" starring Will Smith," which opened to $77.2 million. The movie probably would have beaten that mark if not for the weather.

Still, there's every reason to believe "Avatar" is on its way to a long and successful run at the box office, as audiences gave it an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore. Along with overwhelmingly positive reviews, that means word of mouth should be excellent. Next weekend will likely be particularly lucrative for "Avatar" and the entire industry as Christmas falls on a Friday, setting up what should be a monstrous three days of moviegoing.

"Avatar" watchers were overwhelmingly interested in the movie's 3-D technology. Digital 3-D and Imax 3-D screens generated more than 70% of the movie's weekend gross, according to a person familiar with the numbers. That's a good sign for Fox, not only because 3-D tickets carry surcharges, but because positive buzz about the big-screen technology means audiences won't want to wait to see "Avatar" on DVD.

The ultimate profitability of the movie, however, will depend even more on its performance overseas, where "Avatar" is off to a phenomenal start. Its $159.2-million gross from 106 foreign countries is the seventh-biggest foreign launch of all time and the second-biggest outside of the summer movie season, just barely behind last month's "2012." The Roland Emmerich-directed disaster movie opened with $165 million and has gone on to collect more than $600 million overseas, and "Avatar" could easily do the same.

That's excellent new for Fox and its financing partners Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners, which spent a staggering $310 million to produce the movie, a figure brought down to $280 million by tax credits. In addition, Fox spent about $150 million to market and distribute the movie worldwide.

The only other picture to open nationwide this weekend, the Hugh Grant-Sarah Jessica Parker romantic comedy "Did You Hear About the Morgans?," flopped, opening to just $7 million domestically. Sony Pictures and Relativity Media co-financed the movie at a cost of $58 million and are hoping it will decline slowly in the coming weeks.

Competition among limited-release movies was fierce after Tuesday's Golden Globe nominations. Weinstein Co.'s musical "Nine" opened to a very healthy $247,000 at just four theaters, giving it an average gross of nearly $62,000 at each location.

Fox Searchlight's country music drama "Crazy Heart" had a more modest debut despite stronger reviews, collecting $84,000 at four theaters.

Paramount's George Clooney drama "Up in the Air" continues to perform very well, collecting $3.1 million at 175 theaters and bringing its total to $8.1 million. 

-- Ben Fritz

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


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