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Could 'Avatar' hit $1 billion?

December 20, 2009 | 12:54 pm

Avatar 20th Century Fox's $430-million bet on James Cameron is off to a rip-roaring start and set up for a huge holiday haul.

"Avatar" sold a studio-estimated $232.2 million worth of tickets around the world this weekend, the ninth-biggest global debut of all time not accounting for ticket-price inflation. It was the biggest ever for a non-sequel, a sign that Fox's marketing machine succeeded in generating huge interest in a picture whose name alone didn't have much built-in excitement, as evidenced by modestly attended midnight screenings Thursday night.

The film's $73-million domestic gross was, like every movie in the market, significantly affected Saturday by snowstorms that kept East Coast audiences, from Washington, D.C., through New England, off the roads. Grosses were noticeably lower in Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore -- as well as in New Orleans and Dallas due to the Cowboys-Saints match-up Saturday, which had been hotly anticipated.

Nonetheless, it was a solid performance, the second-biggest for December. Perhaps more importantly, those who saw the movie enjoyed it. Every demographic gave "Avatar" an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore, meaning those who didn't turn out for opening weekend will be getting strong recommendations from those who did. The combination of Christmas falling on a Friday and positive word of mouth has Fox executives buzzing that "Avatar" could gross nearly as much on its second weekend as its first and hit $200 million by the end of the year in the U.S. and Canada.

The big money for "Avatar," however, is coming from the rest of the world. Despite not yet having opened in Japan and China and frigid weather in northern Europe, it collected $159.2 million, the sixth-highest simultaneous foreign launch of all time. When accounting for the absence of those two big Asian markets, it was No. 4, behind only the sixth "Harry Potter" movie, the third "Spider-Man" and the third "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Because of China's annual limit on foreign films, "Avatar" can't open there until Jan. 2. It debuts in Japan on Wednesday. With big grosses expected in those countries, where effects-laden tent-pole movies tend to do very well, and very strong momentum everywhere else, "Avatar" will almost certainly gross more than half a billion dollars internationally. If it performs as well as recent overseas smash hits like "2012" and if the domestic take hits $300 million or more, both of which appear possible at the moment, "Avatar" could become the fifth movie to ever top $1 billion in worldwide box office.

The largest factor in its performance beyond word of mouth is 3-D. One of the reasons for the spectacularly high cost of "Avatar" is the advanced digital 3-D technology developed by Cameron and his team. Domestically, theaters with 3-D screens accounted for 71% of the movie's gross despite representing only 60% of theaters. Overseas, the disparity was far more dramatic, as 25% of screens and 51% of ticket sales were in 3-D.

If the movie's momentum continues, Fox and its financing partners Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners could come close to profitability based on theatrical revenues alone. Studios typically receive half of a movie's domestic and 40% of its international box-office revenue. Future revenue from DVD, television and other markets would then put them well into the black. The three companies spent about $280 million to produce "Avatar" after the benefit of tax credits, and Fox spent an additional $150 million to market and distribute it worldwide.

Morgans With "Avatar" dominating the box office and snow hurting the industry Saturday night, there was little other good news. Sony Pictures and Relativity Media's $58-million romantic comedy "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" flopped, debuting to just $7 million. Disney's and Warner Bros.' hopes that their movies "The Princess and the Frog" and "Invictus," both of which had so-so starts last weekend, would decline modestly proved futile. Both dropped by about 50%.

Nonetheless, total industry revenue was up a phenomenal 52% from the same weekend a year earlier, when the No. 1 movie, "Yes Man," grossed just $18.3 million.

Among awards contenders in limited release, Weinstein Co.'s musical adaptation "Nine" had a strong start, but Fox Searchlight's country music drama "Crazy Heart," starring Jeff Bridges, did not. The critically acclaimed George Clooney drama "Up in the Air" continued its impressive run as it expanded to 175 theaters (for more details, see our earlier box-office report).

Here are the top 10 movies at the domestic box office according to studio estimates and Hollywood.com:

1. "Avatar" (Fox/Dune/Ingenious): Opened to $73 million in the U.S. and Canada, $159.2 million in 106 foreign countries.

2. "The Princess and the Frog" (Disney): Off 50% on its second weekend playing nationwide to $12.2 million. Domestic total: $44.8 million.

3. "The Blind Side" (Warner Bros./Alcon): $10 million, down just 33% on its fifth weekend. U.S. and Canadian total: $164.7 million.

4. "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" (Sony/Relativity): Debuted to $7 million.

5. "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" (Summit): Off 45% on its fifth weekend to $4.4 million, bringing its domestic take to $274.6 million.

6. "Invictus" (Warner Bros./Spyglass): Fell 52% on its second weekend to $4.2 million. Domestic total: $15.9 million.

7. "A Christmas Carol" (Disney): $3.4 million, down 50% on its seventh weekend. $130.8 million so far.

8. "Up in the Air" (Paramount/Montecito): $3.1 million as it more than doubled its theater count to 175. U.S and Canadian gross so far: $8.1 million.

9. "Brothers" (Lionsgate): $2.6 million, down 48% on its third weekend. $22.1 million domestic total.

10. "Old Dogs" (Disney): $2.3 million on its fourth weekend, down 48%. Domestic take to date: $43.6 million.

--Ben Fritz

Related:

"Avatar" midnight ticket sales: $3.5 million

"Avatar" review

Hoping "Avatar" is the new face of filmmaking

"Avatar" coverage on Hero Complex blog

Top photo: Sam Worthington (seated) and James Cameron (standing) on the set of "Avatar." Credit: Mark Fellman / 20th Century Fox.

Bottom photo: Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant in "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" Credit: Barry Wetcher / Sony Pictures.

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