Weekend Wrap-Up

Game Changer Avatar Breaks Few Records at the Box Office

By John Hamann

December 20, 2009

I always feel like somebody's watching me.

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After James Cameron spent 12 years developing the supposed movie game changer Avatar, and Fox spent $300 million getting it to movie theaters, an unexpected roadblock hit the biggest movie of the year in the form of snow on the US East Coast. Avatar still performed strongly, but the weather likely ruined the space epic's chances of being the biggest December opener ever. Avatar isn't the only one cursing the weather this weekend, as many titles saw large drops compared to last weekend. The good news for Avatar and its cohorts is that this is just the front end of the holiday box office bonanza, with 14 big days still to come.

Our number one film of the weekend is James Cameron's Avatar, the former king of the world's return to theaters. It's been a dozen years since Titanic walked away with $1.85 billion in worldwide grosses, 11 Oscars and four Golden Globes (the same amount Avatar is nominated for). Since then, Cameron has stuck to IMAX documentaries in the form of Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss, neither of which shook the foundation of cinema. While those docs were being produced, though, Cameron was working on the epic Avatar, billed as the re-invention of cinema. Whether it is or not is still being determined, but by the results of the weekend, moviegoers are certainly interested in finding out what Cameron has been up to. Avatar opened on 3,452 venues – that's a combination of 2-D, 3-D and IMAX – and grossed a very impressive $73 million. It had a venue average of $21,147. Without the snowy weather on the US East Coast, we are probably looking at maybe a 5% increase to Avatar's weekend total, but it wouldn't have been enough to take down I Am Legend's December gross of $77.2 million.


Is this a win for James Cameron, the folks at Fox and their partners? Oh yeah, baby. Judging from the way the TV ads rolled out, it has looked like Fox and company were playing for the long haul and not the opening weekend, like Twilight: New Moon did a few weekends ago. Actually, the long-haul decision happened a long time ago when Avatar was given a pre-Christmas release date, much like that of Titanic. Titanic opened December 19, 2007, to $28.6 million, and it stayed at number one for 77 days, until Friday, March 6, 1998, when it got beat by US Marshals (it still won the weekend). While the same domination will likely not happen with Avatar, the release strategy is the same: dominate the holiday season, and the rest is really gravy, despite that huge production cost. Most of the days leading up to Christmas will play like a Friday night, and Avatar could conceivably be a $200 million picture by the time 2010 hits. The way the calendar falls this year, there are three big weekends over the holidays, this weekend, December 25th - 27th, and then January 1st - 3rd. Somewhat disappointing for studios this year is that December 25th falls on a Friday; however, both Christmas and New Year's Eve fall on a Thursday.

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