Top 12 Film Industry Stories of 2009:
#1: Avatar Is Almost Titanic
By David Mumpower
January 3, 2010

More of these plants should have been Na'vi eating.

Timing is everything in life. Consider that had we started this year's list of the top stories of 2009 12 days earlier, Avatar would have finished in third place. That was where it was originally slotted when we finalized the order. At the time, Avatar had domestic box office of $125 million. As I have been chronicling in the 12 Days of Holiday Box Office, a situation can and will change rapidly at this point on the box office calendar. Given the cataclysmic domestic as well as global performances of Avatar through the Christmas-New Year's Day weekend period, there is simply no denying the point that it has bullied its way into being the biggest Film Industry Story of 2009.

The triumph of director James Cameron's previous work, Titanic, is easy to quantify. The fictional interpretation of the infamous historical shipwreck not only surpassed Star Wars to become the number one box office title of all time, it did so by 30%. Ignoring ticket price inflation adjustments, Star Wars earned $461 million, $138 million of it occurring during its January re-release in 1997. On its 86th day of release, Titanic overtook Star Wars to become the biggest film ever. 12 days later, it became the first title to earn $500 million in domestic release and eventually passed the $600 mark as well, finishing with $600.8 million. That's the North American side of the occasion. Internationally is where the title truly shined.

James Cameron has always been a huge draw overseas. Aliens earned almost $100 million internationally, making it one of the 35 best performers of all-time. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the third strongest overseas earner through 1992, trailing only Star Wars and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Even the relatively unheralded True Lies was at one point among the 20 most lucrative international box office earners. Including The Terminator and The Abyss' combined $95 million abroad, the director's works accrued roughly $725 million in worldwide revenue through 1996. For whatever reason, his works have proven to be arguably the most prosperous in the industry in terms of global appeal.

Still, the industry was knocked on its heels by how Titanic performed internationally. Its overseas take of $1.23 billion would be more than enough to make it the overall winner in terms of worldwide box office. It doesn't even need that pesky $600.8 million domestic total to beat the film that had been the second place finisher prior to Avatar, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which has worldwide sales of $1.13 billion. Titanic made a full hundred million more overseas than the final piece of the Peter Jackson trilogy made globally. Titanic has the largest domestic total, the largest international total and the largest worldwide total...and all by a LOT.

As you are fully aware, James Cameron took a vacation after Titanic made him a very, very rich man. Excluding nature flick Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss, an enjoyable documentary also about the Titanic, he did not direct a film for a dozen years. When Avatar was announced as a project, the auteur stated that he had been waiting for technology to catch up to his vision of what the production would need. To many, this sounded like another brash act from an egotistical man. Independent of how anyone feels about the man himself, however, there is no disputing the fact that he has always backed up his braggadocio with quality work. Cameron has somehow managed to navigate the boundaries between art and commercialism, making critically hailed features that also earn a ton of money. Avatar, the follow-up to Titanic, was the first one he believed could not be created using current movie tools.

Fast forward to 2009 and the research and development team working under Cameron finally conquered the cutting edge technology needed to create the fully immersive world required for Avatar's story to work. Early trailers for the movie created a strong buzz, not all of it positive. Consumers were a bit confused by the graphics, which were aptly described as similar in tone to a videogame cut scene. The last such movie to achieve that look, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, is arguably the worst financial disaster in the history of our industry. Ergo, that is not the comparison anyone wants linked to their film. As further footage and a more detailed trailer were released, details of the plot emerged. In point of fact, the staff at BOP was able to suss out the entire storyline structure based upon the visuals in the full length commercial. Daron Aldridge would describe its contents as "a very straightforward, linear" clip and he was later proven right. One of the conceits of Avatar's marketing campaign is that it laid out in plain sight what the movie would be. The catch is that there was no way to anticipate the actual movie-going experience itself. Avatar's ads sold the steak rather than the sizzle, a first in our industry.

The sizzle could not be revealed in an advertisement. Perhaps this is why Cameron and the movie's distributor, Fox, placed such a lockdown on information regarding Avatar. As recently as a month prior to release, no one had any idea whether Cameron's opus capitalized upon the treasure trove of motion-capture technology advances he had demanded to employ. All buzz about the film was predicated upon the commercials. There was nothing else out there that was confirmed about it. Due to the overriding resentment and jealousy directed toward Cameron, the movie discussion vacuum was centered upon the budget of the film with published speculation placing the production cost north of $500 million. Fox took the rare step of publicly stating the budget in order to head off this line of negative discourse. The distributor stated an outlay of $237 million for the production as well as an additional $150 million directing toward marketing expenses. The hefty price tag of $387 million in negative cost meant that Avatar needed to be nothing short of a global phenomenon to earn a profit. Stating the obvious, it is.

The opening weekend of Avatar was tense. As is the case with all December releases, the first three days were not as lucrative as would be the case for a summer release. The behavior during this month of box office is singularly unique, depressing the opening weekends and dramatically extending the legs of all releases. The existing champion for largest December debut was I Am Legend at $77.2 million. A first day total of $26.8 million gave Avatar a chance at the title, but it just missed. Fox originally issued a statement indicating they believed Avatar had attained the record, only to discover later that it fell $200,000 short at $77.0 million. This is the last bit of bad news the production experienced.

The wonderful aspect of a December holiday release is that its weekdays perform eerily similarly to Fridays and Saturdays. Also, a movie ordinarily does not experience any drop from the period around December 20th until the first Sunday after New Year's, in this case January 3rd. Avatar rode this wave to some unprecedented totals. Consider that the movie made $60.1 million during its first four weekdays in theaters. Anyone who follows our summer box office analysis here at BOP understands what an amazing weekday hold that is. Then, Avatar dropped less than 2% in its second weekend from its first one. In a seven day period, the running total of Avatar went from $77.0 million to $212.7 million. It is the next four days that were the most impressive, though. During its second (!) Monday-Thursday box office period, Avatar earned $71.1 million, an increase of 18% from the previous batch of weekdays. Yes, holiday inflation explains part of that but a movie earned this type of daily box office should slow down at least SOME. We're still waiting for Avatar to do that.

The second weekend of Avatar set a record for box office, edging The Dark Knight's previous record total of $75.2 million by $400,000. The third weekend is where the situation has gotten harder to logically reconcile. The standing record for third weekend box office total had been held by Spider-Man, which earned $45.0 million. Avatar's third weekend box office total is $68.3 million, a sizzling 52% increase over the best previous total. Down less than 10% from last weekend, it has a running total of $352.0 million after 17 days in release.

Avatar is currently racing The Dark Knight for the second most successful movie of all time in terms of domestic box office. Were that to happen, James Cameron would hold a claim to the TWO biggest box office performers all time in North America. The only question is the order of one versus two and yes, Avatar does have a chance at besting Titanic. Whether it does either of these feats or not, it has already crossed a billion in worldwide revenue, one of only five releases to do so. And it is a mortal lock to become at least the second most lucrative global performer to date, meaning that James Cameron has made the two best films of all-time in terms of worldwide box office. He has reclaimed his throne as King of the World.

Summarizing this year's list, in determining the most important industry stories of the year, we had originally vacillated between Paranormal Activity and New Moon. The latter film's single day box office record perfectly encapsulates the era of box office frontloading that has defined the 2000s. The former film is in the discussion (and probably the winner) for the most lucrative movie ever made in terms of capital required to create, market and distribute the release compared to its total revenue earned. In a lot of years, either of these stories would justify being named as the most important of the year.

Avatar blew both of them out of the water for the following reasons. During our first list in 2003, we named The Passion of the Christ's pre-release buzz as one of the biggest stories of the year due to the controversy it had unintentionally (?) created. Avatar, James Cameron's follow-up to the all-time box office champion, merited placement on the upper half of the list for that reason alone. Merely the existence of Avatar and the complications in its creation was a big story.

Also, during the course of discussing the 2009 list, I mentioned our schism over Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. One film was the strongest domestic performer of 2009 prior to Avatar while the other was the strongest international performer of 2009 prior to Avatar. Each of them justified placement on the list for that reason. Avatar combines both elements in one story.

In fact, Avatar has already passed a billion dollars in terms of global revenue and in a matter of days will become the second most successful overall performer of all time. Globally, it has earned more in 17 days of release than The Dark Knight earned worldwide in a full year. Just try spinning your head around that for a moment. We named The Dark Knight as the most important story of 2008 and the vote was such a runaway that we added a "DUH!" at the end. Avatar is that story, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and the pre-release hype of The Passion of the Christ all rolled into one, making it the mega-story of the decade. A dozen years after the release of Titanic, James Cameron has duplicated that film's success and thereby proven himself to be THE icon of our industry.