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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

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


"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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Comments (27)

Given the positive reviews at rotten tomatoes and I definitely think this will have legs to bring in the money. Plus, with the snowstorm in the northeast many people had to reschedule their plans to see it until next weekend or over the holidays. This will definitely make it's massive budget back.

Just went to see it in Dublin, Ireland, it's excellent.

I never saw Titanic, I must confess I always thought of James Cameron as a better version of Michael Bay, all flash and no substance.

But Avatar blew me away, as a lifelong Star Wars fan, I must say that this had more impact for me than the original Star Wars. And it's better made than Lord of the Rings trilogy

It's a masterpiece.

Brilliantly done.

I went and saw it again on IMAX 3D and have to say if you can see it on an IMAX screen, you'd be doing yourself a disservice. But the movie isn't Dependant on 3D.


LA Times has an article every day about avatar.

Pretty, pretty, pretty shameless.


Christians should be warned that the name of Jesus Christ and God are used as curse words, NOT revered in this movie. Considering this is the time of year we Christians celebrate the birth of Christ as our Savior, you would think Cameron for all his "genius" would have enough sense NOT to insult all Christians while putting his hand in our pockets for the entrance fee. It's time Christians demanded foreknowledge of the language being used in every movie if it is going to take the precious name of Jesus or God through the mud. I dare Hollywood to use "mohamed" in a cursing venue, just once. THEN you'd get the message.

I have yet to see it in IMAX but from the 2D version, I was truly dumbfounded. Awestruck. Avatar has just indelibly sealed its place in cinema history. True, the dialogue could've been better but James Cameron's storytelling was just commanding. I was glued to my seat, oooh-ing and aaah-ing.

Here's the thing, I would gladly pay to see this movie again.

Are you kidding me kapechi? Get a damn life. Just go live in a hut if you are going to be offended everytime someone says something you do like.

I can't wait to see this movie. My friend said it feels like you're flying when you see it in 3-D.

Chalres? Don't you mean Charles? Can't you even spell your own name, retard? By the way, your post makes no sense. "Something you don't like" would have made sense. You are an idiot.

Bazil Giani, interesting comment, because the film was made completely in new Zealand by the same digital studio's that made Lord of the Rings.

@Bazil Giani, I couldn't agree more with you. Avatar is a brilliant film, I'm seeing it again this week.

We are flattered at FIRSTBANK STUDIOS that there is a comparison to our production of A BILLION BUCKS ... the Getty/Hitler Trilogy … GETTYMOVIE.


No one cares. Using fairy tale words in a fairy tale movie is expected. After all, it's NOT REAL.

I have to agree with everyone else. Saw it over the weekend and this nonsense that its just Dances with Wolves is just that. The movie has a number of themes that are similar to Dances with Wolves along with Ferngully and a number of other movies. They form what I consider the skeleton of the movie. Cameron filled in the rest with interesting characters, environments, and tech to make an outstanding movie.
My only real complaint is that he didn't really develop the characters as far as I would have liked. The primary cast....well I'll be blunt. I didn't care about them as much as I did about the characters in Aliens. Cameron should have added another 15 minutes at the start of the movie before Jake showed up to introduce the characters and their interactions. Less so with the Na'vi since knowing nothing about them, puts us in the same position as Jake.
But overall it is a solid 9 out of 10 for me. Would have been a 10 out of 10 with a bit more effort.

The feeling I get from this is that the studio and the press are pushing waaaaaaay to hard to say how great the movie is and how great it's doing. I just dont see this movie having realy long legs at the box office. It be great if it did but I'm not getting that box office smash hit feeling.

Best Movie ever!

@ kapechi:

Thanks for the heads up. The more Christians are warned that Hollywierd is trashing their faith BEFORE we pay at the box the better. One more film to avoid. Merry Christmas my friend. Keep the faith. In the end, we win! Oh, and don't forget to thank Al Gore for inventing the internet for us.

@ Chalres: That's mighty tolerant of you. Obviously you're not a dem.

@ Vale:

You couldn't be more wrong - people do care. And if they know in advance - thank you Kapechi - Christians (who are still a huge block of the market) might chose not to see this movie. Vale, you would have to be pretty naive to think including those references was not planned for effect. Those names are not fairy tale names. They may be inserted in fairy tale moves with reverence or in a derogatory manner. Whichever motive, it's done to make a statement. But I'm certain you're smart enough to already know that.

I really enjoyed this movie. I got to see it in 3D and it's not often I give a movie rave reviews... but this one deserves it. Excellent picture.

I loved the special effects and especially the lighting effects. Love story was expected. Hated the not so subtle attack on (white) people. The human race is not as bad as we are made out to be. One more thing - I worship Father God - not mother earth. That is the reason I could not enjoy it.

Can't wait to see it in 3D! kapechi, you poor persecuted Christian everyone is out to get you, especially those godless bastards in Hollywierd. Frankly, can't see what the harm is invoking one mythology while creating another,...hahahahhahaha

Blown away. Barely even noticed the story, the visuals were that amazing. Definitely going to see it again.

Am I the only one who's not really interested in seeing Avatar?

I'm surprised at the amount of christians posting here. Guess what, your god has entered the vernacular as a curse word. Get over it. The vast majority of people don't really care whether or not James Cameron uses language you dislike. I doubt most christians who saw the movie even cared. If that is all it takes for you to refuse to a see a movie, good riddance in my opinion.

@Sharon Did you not get the whole point of the movie? Their religion was verifiably based in fact. And even if it wasn't, who cares what the aliens on a fictional planet believe in? Is it really enough to ruin what was otherwise a decent movie?

Moving past the ridiculous comments, the movie itself was pretty good. The story was a bit generic, and the plot didn't twist enough, but the visuals were top notch. Having seen it both with and without the 3d, I really appreciate how much it adds to the story. Unlike previous 3d movies, it isn't too obtrusive.