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Movie projector: 'Avatar' headed for $200 million-plus worldwide opening

December 17, 2009 |  3:28 pm

Avatar One of the most expensive movies of all time is poised for a huge box office debut this weekend, though nowhere close to the biggest ever.

"Avatar" will likely gross about $80 million from Friday through Sunday in the U.S. and Canada, according to several people who have seen pre-release public surveys. Thanks to largely positive reviews, however, the people said the movie could easily outperform what polling currently indicates and end up even higher.

People close to the studio said executives are concerned about managing expectations for their costly picture going into the weekend. Fox's domestic distribution president Bruce Snyder said he expects the movie to open to $50 million to $60 million.

Overseas, where the James Cameron-directed 3-D spectacle is opening this week in 106 countries, including every major market except Italy, Japan and China, it will probably sell more than $100 million worth of tickets and could easily collect around $150 million.

That would put "Avatar" among the 20 biggest worldwide launches ever, although well behind such hugely successful pictures as "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," all of which debuted with more than $300 million.

To turn a profit on their massive investment, Twentieth Century Fox and its financing partners Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners need "Avatar" to be one of the most successful movies ever. The three companies spent about $310 million to produce the movie, a total brought down to $280 million after tax credits from New Zealand, where its special effects were done by Peter Jackson's Weta Digital. Additionally, Fox has invested about $150 million to market and distribute the movie worldwide.

The two weekends leading up to Christmas have historically been relatively slow at the box office as people are busy shopping and preparing for holiday travel. The strongest debut for this time of year is "I Am Legend," with Will Smith, which opened to $77.2 million domestically in 2007. However, next weekend, which kicks off with Christmas on a Friday, is expected to be particularly strong and possibly set an industry record. If word of mouth is as positive as reviews have been, "Avatar" could defy the typical industry trends and not decline significantly in its second weekend, even though it will be joined in theaters by the highly anticipated new releases "Sherlock Holmes" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel."

Pre-release surveys indicate that overall awareness of "Avatar" this week is huge, a sign that Fox's marketing and publicity campaign has been a success. Among those aware of the film, men are overwhelmingly interested in it, particularly those older than 30. Women aren't as enthusiastic — especially teenage girls. The opening weekend audience will probably be heavily tilted toward men. The big question for Fox is whether women will show up in subsequent weeks.

"Avatar" will benefit from surcharges at theaters with digital 3-D projection. About 60% of its theaters in the U.S. and Canada, and 30% internationally, are showing the movie in 3-D. Because Cameron shot "Avatar" using new 3-D technology, which has been a heavy part of the movie's publicity and advertising, the vast majority of its grosses are expected to come from screens that can display it. IMAX large-format 3-D screens are expected to be particularly lucrative.

Forty-four percent of advance ticket purchases at online ticket seller Fandango are for Imax screens,  43% are standard-size 3-D and just 13% are 2-D. At competitor MovieTickets.com, 55% are IMAX 3-D, 31% are regular 3-D, and 14% are 2-D.

The movie is not among the top sellers of all time on Fandango or MovieTickets.com, probably because it is not a sequel to a well-known franchise for which there is more pent-up interest. As a result, ticket sales at tonight's midnight shows will probably be big, but not close to the $22.2 million record set by "The Twilight Saga: New Moon."

The only other movie opening nationwide this weekend is the romantic comedy "Did You Hear About the Morgans?," which is aimed at women. Audience interest seems to be minimal, with the film expected to open to around $10 million. Sony Pictures and Relativity Media financed the movie, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant, for $58 million. Sony is hoping the movie will continue to play through the holidays and perform better overseas, as most Grant's romantic comedies have.

In limited release, the Weinstein Co. debuts its musical adaptation "Nine" and Fox Searchlight debuts country music tale "Crazy Heart."

-- Ben Fritz

Related:

"Avatar" review

Hoping "Avatar" is the new face of filmmaking

"Avatar" coverage on Hero Complex blog

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

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