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Movie projector: Christmas weekend could be biggest in box-office history

December 24, 2009 | 10:20 am

Holmes

When "Sherlock Holmes" producer Joel Silver ran into "Avatar" director James Cameron this month in London, where both were promoting their movies, there was an undeniable tinge of rivalry.

"I said to him, 'Please leave some money on the table for us,'" Silver recalled. "He said, 'Oh, people will see them both.'"

With five movies opening or expanding nationwide and "Avatar" still doing gangbusters business, the question for nearly every major studio this weekend is just how much money there is on the table.

The only sure thing at the box office on Christmas weekend: Hollywood is poised to finish a record-breaking year with what will quite possibly be the highest-grossing weekend ever for the industry.

According to people who closely follow surveys and box-office returns, total tickets sales this weekend in the U.S. and Canada could total more than $260.8 million, the record set in July 2008 when "The Dark Knight" opened.

Christmas falling on a Friday is perfect for the industry because that means the following day, always a huge one for movies, falls on a Saturday, which is also traditionally the busiest filmgoing day of the week.

Despite the competition, "Avatar" is almost certain to be No. 1 again. After a solid but not spectacular $77-million debut last weekend impeded by snow on the East Coast, the costly 3-D epic has set records for the highest-grossing Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday outside of the summer and opening days. As of Wednesday, it has grossed a total of $125.9 million domestically.

With such strong momentum going into its second weekend, the $280-million production will certainly gross more than $60 million and could exceed $70 million once again.

Two other new movies are tracking very well and will probably compete closely for the No. 2 ranking. "Sherlock Holmes," which Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Entertainment financed for $90 million, is generating interest among all audience segments based on the brand name, the appeal of star Robert Downey Jr., and a successful marketing campaign. It's expected to generate $45 million to $60 million Friday through Sunday.

If it beats "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" in the weekend box-office rankings, that will be because Fox's sequel already had two days in the market. The second installment of the singing rodents' big-screen adventures opened on Wednesday to a very strong $18.7 million. Though it's primarily a family movie, "Alvin" is generating decent pre-release interest among adults as well. It also looks to be particularly popular with Latino moviegoers.

While "Alvin," "Sherlock" and "Avatar" clump in the $45-million-plus range, three other new films will be closer together under $20 million. Universal Pictures' new Nancy Meyers-directed comedy, "It's Complicated," is on track to open to $15 million to $20 million. That's similar to previous Meyers comedies "The Holiday" and "Something's Gotta Give," which debuted to $12.8 million and $16 million in December of 2006 and 2003, respectively.

It's Complicated Both of those movies played strongly for several weeks, particular "Something's Gotta Give," which ultimately grossed $125 million. Positive word of mouth and a long box-office life will be key for "It's Complicated," because Universal and its financing partner Relativity Media spent about $85 million to produce the movie, which stars Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.

After three very strong weeks in limited release and six Golden Globe nominations, Paramount Pictures' George Clooney drama "Up in the Air" expanded nationwide Wednesday. It will probably gross $10 million to $15 million this weekend.

The one potential disappointment is Weinstein Co.'s "Nine," which debuted strongly in limited release last weekend but has gotten mostly negative reviews. The people following pre-release surveys say the Broadway musical adaptation, on which the Weinsteins and Relativity Media spent a reported $64 million, will probably struggle to collect $10 million this weekend.

For every new movie, however, Christmas weekend is just the beginning of what studios hope will be a very strong 10-day period. With children out of school and many people not working, weekdays next week should be particularly crowded at theaters. No new movies are opening on New Year's Day, meaning the pictures debuting this week will dominate the box office once again.

Several movies still in release will probably be a factor over the holiday weekend. Walt Disney Studios is particularly looking for its animated feature "The Princess and the Frog" to play well after an unimpressive first two weeks.

In limited release, Sony Pictures Classics opens Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," which stars Johnny Depp and the late Heath Ledger, at four theaters in Los Angeles and New York City.

-- Ben Fritz

Times staff writer Chris Lee contributed to this report.

Top photo: Jude Law, Robert Downey Jr. and Rachel McAdams in "Sherlock Holmes." Credit: Alex Bailey  / Warner Bros.

Bottom photo: Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep in "It's Complicated." Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon / Universal Pictures.

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