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!

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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.

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