Top 10 Film Industry Stories of 2010: #2
Avatar Makes the Money, Loses the Oscar
By David Mumpower
January 28, 2011

And that's just the 47th reason why Avatar is better than The Hurt Locker!

The wisdom of Highlander is sound. There can be only one. Our entire industry is predicated upon competition, the need to become the grand champion of the industry. Like Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, Avatar has proven itself to be The One.

In terms of major box office records, there are three that matter more than the rest. There is the opening weekend record. Avatar cannot lay claim to this title. Quirkily enough, Avatar is not even the biggest opener for the month of December, a trivia question you could use to stump your friends if you and your friends were into box office trivia…which even I think would be weird. The honor of biggest December opener still belongs to I Am Legend, which edged Avatar by $200,000, $77.2 million to $77.0 million. Of course, Avatar’s final domestic take edged out I Am Legend’s by half billion dollars, so I doubt Will Smith is gloating about the situation.

This brings us to the two other records that matter the most. In this day and age, an opening weekend matters exponentially more than just ten years ago since features leave theaters so much faster nowadays. Even so, a movie’s overall performance is judged almost exclusively by its box office with the two primary numbers being domestic and global take. James Cameron found himself in the weird situation of competing against himself during 2010 with the end result being that the top two feature films of all-time are both his. This is like Babe Ruth breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record.

We chronicled the ascension of Avatar in last year’s Film Industry Stories, naming it the most noteworthy event of 2009. Our staff agrees that Avatar is once again one of the top two stories for 2010. Its performance is that far above and beyond the rest of the movie releases over the past two years. When the last Avatar column went live on January 3, 2010, Avatar had earned $352 million in 17 days. Shockingly, it wasn’t even halfway to its final domestic box office tally. The $408 million it would earn from that point forward almost matches the box office of the number one domestic release of 2010, Toy Story 3. The Pixar title’s $415.0 million is less than what Avatar actually earned in calendar 2010, $476.9 million. Avatar was the top box office performer of any title released in 2009 while simultaneously earning the most revenue of any title in theaters in 2010. This jaw dropping 2010 pace comes on the heels of Avatar earning $283.6 million in 2009, the fifth best domestic tally for the year. Keep in mind that Avatar managed this feat despite the fact that it was in theaters only 13 days in 2009. Avatar managed a better box office run in less than two weeks than mega-blockbusters The Hangover or Star Trek made during their entire domestic runs.

If we combine Avatar’s 2009 and 2010 performances, each of which is equally impressive, the resulting box office tally boggles the mind. Cameron’s prior record setter, Titanic, earned $600.8 million, a full $67 million beyond any movie made in the 11 years that followed. Avatar broke this record on February 2, 2010, its 47th day in release. To put into perspective how scalding Avatar’s pace was, simply consider that Titanic was “only” at $311.3 million after 47 days. Avatar almost doubled that box office rate. Here are two other statistics to consider. Avatar has earned $160 million more than Titanic, now the second most lucrative domestic movie ever. Only 13 2010 releases earned $160 million domestically with the difference between Avatar and Titanic representing roughly the domestic box office total of Clash of the Titans. If we compare Avatar to the most popular non-James Cameron release, The Dark Knight, Avatar has accumulated $229 million more in domestic revenue. Only eight 2010 releases earned that much domestically, making the difference between Avatar and The Dark Knight approximately a Shrek Forever After. Stating the obvious, Avatar didn’t just break the domestic box office record. It run away and hid with a total that had stood largely unchallenged for over a decade.

The most shocking aspect of Avatar is the third record, though. Not including the yet to be released Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3, only four previous movies had earned at least a billion dollars worldwide. The aforementioned The Dark Knight barely managed this amazing feat with $1.01 billion. The other non-James Cameron feature films that pulled it off are The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. The reigning champion in this category, as in the case of domestic box office, had been Titanic with its staggering $1.8 billion total, a full $700 million beyond what any previous title had managed.

Keeping that in mind, the way that Avatar has raised the bar for worldwide box office redefines the industry. Only 27% of the overall box office for the movie was accumulated domestically, a North American run we just evaluated above. Almost three fourths of what Avatar earned worldwide was accrued abroad as $2.02 billion worth of international consumers wanted to see what the fuss was about. Note that the international box office alone for Avatar exceeds the overall box office performance of Titanic, the previous record holder, by roughly $200 million. Combining the thought processes, the international take of Avatar is so significant that it exceeds the overall global take of any non-James Cameron project by over a billion dollars. And that amount in and of itself had only been accomplished by four movies in the history of the industry prior to the release of Avatar.

Avatar is huge.

You knew this, we knew this and it almost goes without saying. Still, when we evaluate the distinguished Film Industry Stories of 2010, we would be remiss to ignore what was accomplished here. Avatar is above and beyond other titles that are in and of themselves above and beyond the rest. This is like hitting 100 home runs in a single baseball season or scoring 20 touchdowns in a game or scoring 100 points in a half. It shouldn’t be possible yet it is.

Oddly, the only negative against Avatar during its entire theatrical release was something entirely out of its control. Despite garnering nine Academy Awards nominations, Avatar’s presence at the Oscars was largely reduced to an afterthought. Its three victories were in Art Direction, Visual Effects (why did they even need to vote?) and Cinematography. Despite everything James Cameron did to enable the duplicated triumph of Titanic and even exceed it, he was not voted Best Director. Instead, that honorific was bestowed upon Cameron’s ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow.

Bigelow’s movie, The Hurt Locker, was also selected Best Picture over Avatar. While I will not argue the relative quality of both movies, each of which is exceptional in its own right, here is the statistic that is germane to the discussion at hand. The Hurt Locker earned $17.0 million domestically and just under $50 million worldwide. The difference between the box office champion of 2009 and the Academy Award winner for Best Picture that year is $743.5 million, an amount that in and of itself is over $40 million more than any movie other than Avatar has ever accumulated. In terms of global receipts, the gap between The Hurt Locker and Avatar is $2.733 billion. Stating the obvious, there will never again be a gap like this between Best Picture contenders.

I cannot shake the feeling that professional jealousy toward James Cameron caused voters to choose the upstart. Had any popular director in the industry accomplished such a revolutionary box office feat, they would have been rewarded with a victory lap at the Academy Awards. James Cameron will have to console himself with the several islands he can buy with his Avatar money…and the money he will receive from the pair of Avatar sequels he is planning to create.