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'Avatar' soon to pass 'Titanic' revenue records, but can it come close in attendance?

January 18, 2010 | 11:31 am

Avatar If there were any doubts that "Avatar" would post the biggest total box-office numbers of all time, they were erased this weekend.

With a decline of only 15% in the U.S. and Canada over the Martin Luther King Day weekend, a $54.5-million four-day domestic gross and another $129 million overseas, director James Cameron's 3-D blockbuster is now certain to surpass the marks set by his own "Titanic" 11 years ago.

As of today, "Avatar" has grossed $1.12 billion internationally and $505 million domestically. Within the next week, it will surpass the $1.24 billion that "Titanic" collected overseas. Shortly thereafter, it should pass the 1997-98 film's domestic total of $600.8 million.

Eleven years ago, of course, ticket prices were a lot cheaper -- the most recent estimated average ticket price was $7.46, compared with $4.69 in 1998. And most people are seeing "Avatar" in 3-D, where ticket prices are several dollars higher. The result: Far fewer people have seen "Avatar" than "Titanic" so far. "Avatar" has sold fewer than 70 million tickets in the U.S. and Canada; "Titanic" sold more than 125 million.

Overseas, comparisons are even tougher to make due to changing ticket prices and exchange rates in more than 100 countries.

If Cameron's new picture keeps experiencing minuscule 15% to 20% drops each weekend, as executives at distributor 20th Century Fox predict it will, "Avatar" will not only surpass the monetary records of "Titanic" but also gain significant ground in attendance. Just how far it will go is still impossible to say, but with last night's win for best dramatic picture at the Golden Globes, it's likely that even the most tent-pole-averse moviegoers are becoming interested, while fanboys are still going multiple times.

Although the success of "Avatar" is lining the pockets of Fox and co-financiers Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners, it is not sucking the rest of the market dry. "The Book of Eli" and "The Lovely LastStationBones" both had healthy debuts in wide release this weekend, collecting $38 million and $20.5 million, respectively, from Friday through Monday. Though the audience for "Eli" tilted toward young men, it was broader than the audience for "Bones," which was predominantly young and female.  Alcon Entertainment and Warner Bros. have reason to be confident that "Eli" will hold up in coming weeks, but Paramount's "Bones" may not generate much interest beyond its core fan base. (For more on the openings of "The Book of Eli" and "The Lovely Bones," along with "The Spy Next Door," see our initial box office post.)

In limited release, the well-reviewed Leo Tolstoy biopic "The Last Station" opened to a solid $98,723 in three theaters from Friday to Monday.

Though there was very little bad news for movie studios this weekend, total grosses were down 13% through Sunday from the same weekend last year, according to Hollywood.com. Big gains at the box office will be difficult in the next several months, as the winter of 2009 was huge.

Here are the top 10 movies at the domestic box office, according to studio estimates and Hollywood.com. Rankings are based on four-day grosses, but percentage declines are on a three-day basis, since last Monday was not a holiday.

1. "Avatar" (Fox/Dune/Ingenious): $54.6 million on its fifth weekend, down just 15% on a three-day basis. $129 million overseas in 112 markets. Domestic total: $505 million. Foreign total: $1.12 billion.

2. "The Book of Eli" (Warner Bros./Alcon): $38-million opening.

3. "The Lovely Bones" (Paramount): $20.5 million in its nationwide debut. Including five previous weeks at three theaters, its domestic total is $21 million.

4. "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" (Fox/New Regency): $15 million on its fourth weekend, down 30% on a three-day basis. $14.3 million overseas in 56 markets. Domestic total: $196.1 million. Foreign total: $158.5 million.

5. "The Spy Next Door" (Lionsgate/Relativity): Debuted to $13 million.

6. "Sherlock Holmes" (Warner Bros./Village Roadshow): $11.7 million on its fourth weekend, down 40% on a three-day basis. $26.3 million overseas in 53 territories. Domestic total: $181.9 million. Foreign total: $168.6 million.

7. "It's Complicated" (Universal/Relativity): $9.6 million on its fourth weekend, down 26% on a three-day basis. $9 million overseas in 24 territories. Domestic total: $90.1 million. Foreign total: $36.4 million.

8. "Leap Year" (Universal/Relativity/Spyglass): $7.1 million on its second weekend, down 35% on a three-day basis. Domestic total: $18.8 million.

9. "Up in the Air" (Paramount/Montecito): $6.7 million on its seventh weekend, down 24% on a three-day basis. Domestic total: $64 million.

10. "The Blind Side" (Warner Bros./Alcon): $6.5 million on its ninth weekend, down 26% on a three-day basis. Domestic total: $227.7 million.

-- Ben Fritz

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

Bottom photo: Christopher Plummer in "The Last Station." Credit: Stephan Rabold / Sony Pictures Classics

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