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Zoe Saldana portrays Neytiri in the 3-D hit "Avatar," which won the three-day holiday weekend with an estimated box office take of $75 million. (20th Century Fox / December 1, 2009)

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A big year at the box office is ending with a bang, with a broad array of popular films combining for the biggest moviegoing weekend in recent history.

Led by the 3-D epic "Avatar," which was followed closely by "Sherlock Holmes" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," total estimated theatrical receipts from Friday through Sunday in the U.S. and Canada were $278 million.

That beat the previous record of $261 million for a three-day take -- set in July 2008 when "The Dark Knight" debuted -- even when accounting for ticket price inflation, according to data from Hollywood.com. The Los Angeles-based firm's data go back to about 1985.

All the stars seemed to align for Hollywood last weekend. Christmas, always a popular moviegoing day, fell on a Friday near the end of a year during which ticket sales and attendance have risen despite the troubled economy.

Audience interest was widely distributed, with three movies collecting more than $50 million apiece.

"Avatar" sold $75 million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada, down just 3% from its opening, in a display of unusually strong momentum. "Sherlock Holmes" started with a very healthy $65.4 million, while "Alvin" collected a solid $50.2 million over the three-day weekend.

"It's amazing to see one weekend with so many movies doing so much business," said Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures.

The romantic comedy "It's Complicated" also launched Friday, collecting a healthy $22.1 million, while Paramount's well-reviewed awards contender "Up in the Air" expanded nationwide with a so-so $11.8 million. The weekend's one disappointment was "Nine," which debuted nationwide to a weak $5.5 million.

"Avatar," which continues to attract audiences to lucrative 3-D screens, posted the second-biggest second weekend for any movie on record, behind only "The Dark Knight." It so far has grossed an impressive $212.3 million domestically.

Overseas, it took in a robust $145 million, including a very strong launch in Japan. Its worldwide total is $617.3 million in just 10 days, making it very likely to be only the fourth picture in history to top $1 billion worldwide. What seemed like a very risky $430-million investment by 20th Century Fox and two partners in producing and marketing "Avatar" now looks like it will prove to be a lucrative choice.

It was a huge weekend for Fox, as the studio's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," which it financed with New Regency for $70 million, grossed $77.1 million from its debut on Wednesday through Sunday. Overseas, "Alvin" grossed a strong $36.5 million in 42 foreign markets.

In particularly good news for Fox, "Squeakquel" got an average audience grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore. That means word of mouth should be stellar.

"I remember when we put ["Avatar" and "Alvin"] five days apart, I was a little nervous," said Fox's senior vice president of domestic distribution, Bert Livingston. "The market expanded to fit our movies and 'Sherlock.' "

Warner Bros.' new version of the British detective, portrayed by Robert Downey Jr., had a very good start given its $90-million production budget. Unlike the family-heavy "Alvin," audiences for "Sherlock Holmes" were evenly split between those over and under 30.

In the 17 foreign markets where it also debuted, "Sherlock" collected an additional $26 million.

However, its average domestic audience grade was a B, indicating that it may decline faster than "Alvin" or "Avatar" in the coming days.

The $22.1-million start for Universal Pictures' "It's Complicated," which stars Meryl Streep, wasn't particularly impressive given its budget of about $85 million. However, previous romantic comedies directed by Nancy Meyers such as "The Holiday" and "Something's Gotta Give" have ultimately grossed many times their opening. "It's Complicated," which got an average grade of A-, should do the same.

"Up in the Air" received a B, a surprisingly low mark given its overwhelmingly positive reviews and awards recognition. Moore said the movie's ambiguous ending may have led audiences to give it a mixed grade while exiting theaters. Paramount and its financing partner Montecito Co. are already in good financial shape, however, as the $25-million production has grossed $24.5 million so far.

Studios typically get about half of ticket revenue, with the rest going to theaters.

Weinstein Co.'s head of operations, David Glasser, said that adding so many theaters for "Nine" on this crowded weekend may have been a mistake, as evidenced by its dismal take. The financially troubled studio will pull back the adaptation of the Broadway musical to larger cities, where it played better.

The coming week should be lucrative for all movies, particularly those with good buzz, as most children are out of school, many adults are off work, and no new films are scheduled to debut.

"I suspect that from today through next weekend, the box office is going to continue to be unbelievable," said Universal's president of domestic distribution, Nikki Rocco.

ben.fritz@latimes.com