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'Avatar': James Cameron Fantasy Is Global Blockbuster But December Record Goes Unbroken

Avatar: James Cameron fantasy with Stephen Lang as psycho military generalAvatar: James Cameron directed and wrote the environmentally conscious futuristic action adventure romantic fantasy – with bits of war movie thrown in – known as Avatar, a 3D extravaganza that has captured the imagination of popcorn-gobbling moviegoers the world over. British-born, Australian-raised actor Sam Worthington stars as paraplegic U.S. marine Jake Sully, who, quite literally, goes native – becoming a long-legged, long-eared, long-eyed, blue-hued Na'vi. Stephen Lang (pictured) plays a totalitarianly inclined military commander who makes Sterling Hayden's Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove seem – at least moderately – sane.

'Avatar': James Cameron 3D fantasy adventure has best non-weekend Christmas Eve ever

Dec. 24 update: James Cameron's futuristic fantasy adventure Avatar – a sort of War of the Worlds in reverse, with human beings as the nasty aliens – grossed an estimated $11.3 million on Dec. 24, its seventh day out.

As found at boxofficemojo.com, Avatar had the best non-weekend (Mon.–Thu.) Christmas Eve earnings ever (not adjusted for inflation). In terms of overall single-day grosses, Avatar's Christmas Eve take landed it in the no. 39 slot.

The overall Thursday record holder remains George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, which had its Day 1 on a Thursday in May 2005.

As for Thursdays in December, six movies hold higher rankings than Avatar:

  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: twice – no. 12/no. 20.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: twice – no. 15/no. 21.
  • Marley and Me: no. 18.
  • Meet the Fockers: twice – no. 28/no. 31.
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: no. 32.
  • Night at the Museum: no. 38.

Thursdays with 'Titanic': No. 37

Thanks to inflationary pressures, James Cameron's other box office phenomenon, Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, can be found down at no. 37 on the Thursday chart. Back on Jan. 1 '98 (Day 14), the romantic disaster melodrama (or disastrous romantic melodrama, depending on your take) scored $11.5 million.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, which beat Avatar when it opened on Wed., is now way behind on the Thursday chart: no. 74, with $8 million.

Guy Ritchie's much-ballyhooed Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, and Rachel McAdams opens tomorrow. That will be Avatar's chief competitor for moviegoers' dollars, though Cameron's film is the one expected to come out on top over the Christmas weekend.

Update: Avatar did come out on top while breaking a few more box office records.

'Avatar' cast

In the 22nd century-set Avatar, Sam Worthington plays a former U.S. marine who is sent to win over the trust of a native humanoid population – the Na'vi – on a distant planet – Pandora – that is filled with minerals invaluable to human entrepreneurs.

Avatar is James Cameron's first narrative feature since Titanic. Besides Sam Worthington, the cast includes the following:

Three-time Academy Award nominee Sigourney Weaver (as Best Actress for Aliens, 1986, and Gorillas in the Mist, 1988; as Best Supporting Actress for Working Girl, 1988).

Zoe Saldana. Stephen Lang. Giovanni Ribisi. CCH Pounder. Wes Studi. Dileep Rao.

Joel David Moore. Matt Gerald. Laz Alonso. Michelle Rodriguez. Sean Patrick Murphy. Sean Anthony Moran.

Record-breaking sturdy box office legs?

Dec. 22 update: Box Office Mojo reports that James Cameron's Avatar earned another $16 million on Tuesday. The previous day, Avatar broke the Mondays in December Record, with earnings of $16.3 million.

The futuristic adventure fantasy now has the best Tuesday in December as well (not adjusted for inflation or 3D/IMAX ticket-price premiums).

Avatar's five-day domestic total now stands at $109.5 million. Worldwide, the film has earned more than $300 million.

Does that mean Avatar will have the sturdy legs of a pro soccer player? Not necessarily.

'Avatar' vs. 'Spider-Man 2' & 'Pearl Harbor'

Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2, which earned nearly twice as much – $27.6 million – as Avatar on a Monday in July, went on to gross $373.4 at the U.S. and Canada box office. That's not bad at all, but it's probably not good enough for the much costlier Avatar.

Also, Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, considered a domestic financial disappointment due to its high production costs, made only slightly less than Avatar on a Monday back in 2001 – a time when movie ticket prices were quite a bit cheaper than today. The Ben Affleck star vehicle eventually grossed a total of $198.5 million domestically.

Among the 10 movies that had better (non-December) Mondays than Avatar – in some cases, holidays – are: The Dark Knight, Shrek 2, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, X Men: The Last Stand, Bruce Almighty, and The Day After Tomorrow.

Avatar Stephen Lang Sam Worthington: Box office records but not biggest debutAvatar with Stephen Lang and Sam Worthington. James Cameron's futuristic adventure fantasy has been breaking several box office records, but, chiefly because of the winter storm that hit much of the eastern United States over the weekend, not best December opening. Officially, that slot belongs to I Am Legend, Francis Lawrence's dystopian drama – a remake of The Omega Man – toplining Will Smith, Alice Braga, and Charlie Tahan.

'Avatar' beats (lowered) expectations – but still below initial weekend estimates

Dec. 21 update: Thanks to better than expected Sunday business, James Cameron's Avatar grossed $77 million domestically on its opening weekend, Dec. 18–20.

On Friday and early Saturday, estimates ranged from $80–$85 million for the weekend, but with the sharp drop seen later on Saturday – a direct result of the winter storm battering the East Coast of the United States – estimates were lowered on Sunday to $73 million.

Avatar also performed better than expected in the 106 international markets where it's currently playing. Fox had estimated a $159.2 million gross, but the futuristic action-adventure fantasy ended up taking in $165.5 million.

Top 3D performer ever – but not top December debut ever

Now, it's worth remembering that Avatar made most of its business (at least domestically) in theaters that charge higher ticket prices, such as IMAX and 3D venues.

Avatar is now officially the top 3D movie of all time, which isn't really saying much since most 3D films haven't done all that well at the box office and there haven't been all that many to begin with.

Also, Avatar fell a notch below the official (not adjusted for inflation) December record, which has been retained by the Will Smith star vehicle I Am Legend. Bear in mind that Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, released in late 2004, would be the actual record-holder if inflation is taken into account.

Best 'original' debut?

But all is not lost: Avatar has enjoyed the biggest opening for a non-sequel or a movie not based on a book, play, comic strip, TV series, videogame, magazine article, advertising billboard, restaurant menu, or fortune-cookie prediction.

And there goes 99.9 percent of the competition of the last 20 years, from Michael Keaton's Batman to Robert Pattinson's Manbat.

To date, the best opening weekend at the U.S. and Canada box office (not adjusted for inflation) belongs to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, starring Christian Bale as Batman and the then recently deceased Heath Ledger as The Joker. The sequel to Batman Begins earned $158 million in July 2008.

Worldwide, the current record-holder is David Yates' Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The latest installment in the Harry Potter franchise grossed $394 million last July. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson star.

Costly 'Avatar' in the black?

Avatar's production costs, which initially were estimated to fall between $200 and $500 million are now being reported within the $250–$350 million range – not including advertising, prints, and related distribution costs.

Generally speaking, the producing and/or distributing studio receives 50–55 percent of a film's box office gross in the United States and Canada, and about 40 percent of the international gross. Percentages, however, can vary dramatically depending on a variety of contractual factors.

As per a Los Angeles Times report, the last two movies to surpass first-weekend expectations – Paranormal Activity and Star Trek – did great business for weeks. But remember, initial estimates placed Avatar in the $80–$85 million range. So, we'll see if Avatar will turn into another Titanic – or not.

'Nine' has solid debut

As a side note, Rob Marshall's Nine, despite mixed reviews, did solid business domestically. The musical inspired by Federico Fellini's grossed $257,232 at four locations, or a remarkable $64,308 average.

Nine stars Daniel Day-Lewis (in the old Marcello Mastroianni role), Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Sophia Loren, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, and Fergie.

Did You Hear About the Morgans? Hugh Grant Sarah Jessica Parker: Commercial bombDid You Hear About the Morgans? with Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker. In Marc Lawrence's comedy Did You Hear About the Morgans? an about-to-be-divorced New York couple (Sarah Jessica Parker & Hugh Grant) are thrown back together by a cruel twist of fate: they witness a murder. As a result, they are compelled to enter a “temporary witness protection” program, being handed new identities after their relocation to a small town in exotic Wyoming. This may sound like the recipe for a 21st-century The Awful Truth, but something has gone awry, as Did You Hear About the Morgans? has been lambasted by critics and ignored by audiences.

Hugh Grant & Sarah Jessica Parker comedy bombs

Dec. 20: Starring Sam Worthington, James Cameron's Avatar is easily the top movie this weekend, Dec. 18–20. But what about the other movies on the Top Ten box office chart?

Marc Lawrence's Did You Hear About the Morgans?, the weekend's other wide release, debuted in fourth place with a measly $7 million from 2,718 theaters according to studio estimates found at Box Office Mojo. Extreme Measures stars Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker were reunited for this bomb-in-the-making.

Also in the Did You Hear About the Morgans? cast:

Sam Elliott. Elisabeth Moss. Wilford Brimley. David Call. Michael Kelly.

Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard, 1980).

At no. 2, Disney's The Princess and the Frog brought in $12.2 million, lifting its cume to $44.7 million. Next in line was the Sandra Bullock sleeper blockbuster The Blind Side with $10 million, for a domestic total of $164.7 million.

Starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, and Taylor Lautner, Chris Weitz's fantasy The Twilight Saga: New Moon finished fifth, scoring $4.3 million for a cume of $274.5 million after five weeks.

Clint Eastwood's rugby-political drama Invictus, starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman (as Nelson Mandela), followed at no. 6, earning $4.1 million for a highly disappointing $15.8 million total.

Disney's A Christmas Carol, toplining Jim Carrey, collected $3.4 million, at no. 7. Total to date: $130.7 million.

George Clooney socially conscious comedy-drama soars

Starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, and Jason Bateman, Jason Reitman's Up in the Air can now be found among the Top Ten after expanding to 175 venues. Reitman's socially conscious comedy-drama pulled in $3.1 million for an early cume of $8.1 million at no. 8.

Up in the Air has surely been helped by its numerous U.S. film critics accolades. Besides, it's up for several Golden Globes and SAG Awards.

Rounding out the Top Ten, Jim Sheridan's Brothers, a remake of Susanne Bier's 2004 Danish drama of the same name (original title: Brødre), was no. 9 with $2.6 million (total: $22 million), while Disney's comedy Old Dogs raked in $2.2 million (total: $43.5 million).

Brothers stars Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Natalie Portman. The widely panned Old Dogs stars John Travolta and Robin Williams.

'Avatar': International blockbuster

At least in part thanks to the blizzard wreaking havoc on the East Coast of the United States, James Cameron's Avatar fell several million dollars short of its expected $85 million domestic weekend gross.

Of course, the film's estimated (on Sunday, Dec. 20) $73 million take is remarkable, but much better – even if not record-breaking – was its international box office take.

On its first weekend (in some countries, going all the way back to Wed./Thu.), Avatar earned 159.2 million outside the U.S. and Canada, for a grand worldwide total of $232.2 million.

As per The Hollywood Reporter, the markets that brought in more than $10 million over the weekend were:

  • Russia: $21 million.
  • France: $19 million.
  • The U.K.: $14.2 million.
  • Germany: $13.2 million.
  • Australia: $11.3 million.
  • Spain: $11 million.
  • South Korea: $10.8 million.

According to reports, 20th Century Fox has been quick to declare that the zillions spent on Cameron's 3D extravaganza was money well spent – okay, depending on the source, that's actually anywhere between $350–$700 million, including distribution and advertising costs. But perhaps Fox has been a bit too fast on the trigger.

How profitable will 'Avatar' be?

Avatar will earn Fox a profit if it has some very sturdy legs. A $230 million gross, most of it generated in foreign markets, means the studio itself will likely see $90–105 million coming to its coffers. The rest goes to exhibitors, local distributors, governments, and other above-the-line companies and talent.

In the U.S. and Canada, Avatar failed to match the $77.2 million December debut set two years ago by Will Smith's I Am Legend, but it now holds the record for a film opening in 3D, having surpassed the $68.1 million Pete Docter's Up pulled in earlier this year. (Remember, these rankings are not adjusted for inflation, though in the case of Up that wouldn't have made much of a – or any – difference.)

So, in case Avatar's blue Pandorans turn out to have legs as strong as they're long, it seems that Los Angeles' Westside may not be getting a new suburb, after all.

In other words, 20th Century Fox won't have to sell what's left of its backlot. Remember, the Beverly Hills-adjacent Century City was born in large part as a result of the studio's Cleopatra debacle back in the early 1960s.


Sam Worthington and Stephen Lang Avatar images: 20th Century Fox.

Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant in Did You Hear About the Morgans? image: Barry Wetcher / Columbia Pictures.

'Avatar': James Cameron Fantasy Is Global Blockbuster But December Record Goes Unbroken © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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13 Comments to 'Avatar': James Cameron Fantasy Is Global Blockbuster But December Record Goes Unbroken

  1. Dante Washington

    This is not a racist movie. It is about selling tickets at the box office and relating to the majority of the viewers. I guarantee you the majority of the movie viewers will be white, so why not pick a white leading roll who becomes the hero. Why didn't they pick a White person to play the leading roll in Precious? Should we call that Racist? this is a new era and people like you only hold everyone back. I don't see race, I only see people.

  2. Ben

    I'm not going to come off with some racial thing about this movie, but I will tell you this is the best movie I had ever seen.
    The Movie was a thrill ride all the way through and I will buy it and probably see it again in the theatre … Can't we just be entertained in America without everything being about race?

  3. Ron

    Steve, I can't say I thought the movie was racist, but I can say you make a lot of sense in many things you've said and have caused me to think. I do not choose to see the movie as racist, however I did pick up on the theme of humans (being the “civilized” in this scenario) profaning that which we don't understand. In real life, this is just like English settlers and the Indians, et cetera. I thought the movie was beautiful and covered more than just race, but also what it sacred and important to us, and why. We need to delve into this deply to come to terms with one another and ourselves. Many live by what culture tells them, and don't ask these questions, so never really live and make positive steps forward for the human race. Movies like this make me happy because it unnerves people, and if they have any critical thinking skills, they will walk away wondering why, and do something about it. That is my hope at least.

  4. Steve Real

    Avatar is a classic scenario you've seen in Hollywood epics from Dances With Wolves, Dune, District 9 and The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member.

    If we think of Avatar and its ilk as white fantasies about race, what kinds of patterns do we see emerging in these fantasies?

    A white man who was one of the oppressors switches sides at the last minute, assimilating into the alien culture and becoming its savior.
    These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color - their cultures, their habitats, and their populations.

    The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed.

    This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

  5. Steve Real

    I saw Avatar yesterday and I can't help to notice the rascists aspects to the movie, especially in the language and music. It reminded me of the Heart of Darkness were the “White man” brings civilization to the “Black Africans” and you can hear this in Africaner style in the music and lanquage. It's a rascist movie no doubt about it, but I liked it anyways. The “White man” reigned superior to the “Black man” in the end. Check it out and tell me if I'm wrong…

  6. Tommy Kid

    December 19, 09 7:27AM

    This movie is just a dream! “WOW”

    There is a part on “AVATAR” where the Colonel (BAD DUDE) is firing rounds from his gunship at an specific target. Boy, with my 3D glasses I felt he was firing at me. I could see the rounds coming my direction. It was like I was inside the movie at times!

    Cant wait to see “AVATAR 2 ”

    There should be an Oscar Category called “DREAM”
    for “AVATAR”

    ADVICE: AVATAR 3D version IMAX or Digital 3D


  7. Joe

    With the very high gross rating and earnings in days - the movie Avatar definitely had the best Christmas Eve celebration. I will have to go watch the movie myself - the photos you shared are just simply amazing. - Manila

  8. Jax

    On Jan. 14 in my town all shows are still sold out and you had better get there at least an hour early to stand in line for a good seat-and you had better have brought pre-paid tickets with you or you won't get a seat at all. This movie will break all records guaranteed.

  9. mike123

    well looks like Avatar DOES have sturdy legs like a soccer player. Now at No. 2 all-time box office record. And what's interesting is I went to watch it 2nd time at IMAX 3D last night (Jan 7th), it's still a sold out at 10pm and people lined up 2 hrs ahead to get center seats. There were quite few 2nd or even 3rd timers among the lineups. Hands down for James Cameroon, now he owns no.1 and 2 spots in movie history. Can't wait for more from him.

  10. Ashok

    This is perhaps the finest movies ever made… I was glued to my seat throughout the movie… Every thing was perfect about the movie - the breadth-taking graphics, the acting, the script and the most appreciating part was the movie's Direction James Cameroon had set the bar and raised it to such an extent that is difficult (if not impossible) for others to achieve Terminator, Titanic and now Avatar.. they'll be movies that'll be known for a very long time

  11. AL

    Best movie I have seen in 30 years. Best sci-fi EVER, well maybe.

  12. Naviblue.com

    yes I see the same reaction. Funny I watched it in IMAX 3D and now want to go see it a second time in 2D and hope that I can better pay attention to other subtleties about the movie.

  13. Aaron Jenkins

    As an usher at a movie theater with only one 3-D projector, I see the immediate reaction of the customers right as they walk out the door, And the movie goers that see soldout Avatar's in 3-D appear the most blown away. The customers who saw avatar in 2-D apear almsot equally impressed and i have overheard several of them talking about how they wish they saw avatar in 3-D and coming back to see the 3-D version because they loved the movie so much. Now im not sure if Avatars 2nd weekend will beat its 1st like many are saying, but this film will easily beat 300 million domestically and 500 million global.