Avatar Passes Titanic

By David Mumpower

February 3, 2010

I know we're just fictional CGI characters, but shouldn't we ask for a raise?

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On December 18, 2009, almost 12 years to the day after the release of Titanic on December 19, 1997, Avatar opened domestically with single day box office of $26,752,099. While an impressive feat, it was hardly an early warning signal for a record setting box office run. In point of fact, it was only the 95th largest single day total. More surprisingly, that number represents only the 14th largest single day of box office total up until that point in 2009. Future box office trivia will be predicated upon asking people to name the luminaries that somehow outperformed Avatar on their various first days in North American theaters. Sure, most people will guess Star Trek, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but how many will remember Fast & Furious? My guess would be only the people who read this column.


I would argue it is unfair to describe Avatar's opening weekend debut as inauspicious. December releases, particularly the ones right before Christmas, are notorious for deflated opening weekends followed by tremendous weekday tallies. Even so, Avatar's first three day total of $77,025,481 is not of the five largest debuts of 2009, an odd footnote for the number one film of all time. Again, this is an instance of history repeating itself as Titanic was the eighth largest debut of 1997 (including the Star Wars re-release). If you asked someone which did better on opening weekend between Titanic and Batman & Robin, they would look at you funny, but this is one of those trick questions that never grows old. Knowing our box office history would have reminded us that Titanic's debut of $28,638,131 was not its largest weekend total. In fact, it surpassed that amount six different weekends on its way to 15 straight weekends in first place at the box office. Keeping this in mind when we evaluate Avatar, it's therefore less surprising that its first weekend is barely even half of the biggest debut of 2009, New Moon, which opened to $142,839,137. So, while Avatar's $77.0 million debut fell just short of breaking I Am Legend's record for December openings, there wasn't any cause for alarm. Industry observers realize that it's the Christmas-to-New Year's weekdays that drive a film's overall box office revenue.

Keeping the above in mind only tells part of the story, though. Avatar's box office performance has been stunning not just for its across the board consistency but also for its ability to perform well above best case scenarios throughout its run. During the 12 Days of Box Office columns, I noted that an odd comparison model was The Prince of Egypt, a 1998 release that released on the same day during a year with the same calendar configuration as Avatar. This pattern was first pointed out to me by former BOP contributor David Parker, who was the first person I trust who made a logical argument for Avatar to overtake Titanic.

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