- Avatar is on its way to surpassing Titanic at the domestic box office – as long as inflation is set aside.
- Initially heralded as one of the year’s biggest international blockbusters, James Cameron’s environmentally conscious futuristic adventure has recently passed another worldwide box office milestone.
- But what is truly the most successful movie ever made?
Avatar box office: About to surpass Titanic in the domestic market – but not in ticket sales
Feb. 1 update: According to studio figures found at boxofficemojo.com, this past weekend, Jan. 29–31, the domestic gross of James Cameron’s Avatar – a box office record-setter in several “categories” – was at the higher end of expectations: $31.3 million from 3,074 locations, which represents a small 14 percent drop from a week ago.
Average per theater after seven consecutive weekends at the top of the U.S. and Canada box office chart: $9,759, or about what most well-performing releases average on their first weekend out.
After 45 days, the domestic total of this mega-budget ($220 million or whereabouts) 20th Century Fox release stands at $595.8 million. If one doesn’t account for inflation (see further below), that means in the next couple of days Cameron’s futuristic fantasy adventure will surpass the domestic box office success of his romantic melodrama/disaster movie Titanic.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and veteran Gloria Stuart (The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man), Titanic – the no. 1 domestic box office leader for 15 straight weekends back in late 1997/early 1998 – earned $600.8 million.
$2 billion milestone worldwide
Also this past weekend, Avatar passed the $2 billion mark at the global box office; its worldwide cume currently stands at $2.039 billion, of which more than 70 percent came from overseas.
Avatar’s top international markets are the following (updated final figures): China ($202.6 million), France* ($174.4 million), Japan ($170.6 million), Germany ($156.6 million), the United Kingdom ($147.6 million), Russia/CIS ($116.1 million), South Korea ($108.3 million), Spain ($107.3 million), Australia ($103.9 million), Italy ($93.7 million), Brazil ($57.8 million), and Mexico ($43.8 million).
Bear in mind that China and Russia became more open to American movies only in the past few years (i.e., post-Titanic). Also worth noting, about 80 percent of Avatar’s domestic take and more than two-thirds of its international revenues (up to early February 2010) were generated at 3D/IMAX screenings, which charge premium ticket prices.
And let’s not forget that the U.S. dollar’s current weakness helps to “inflate” earnings coming from abroad. (The dollar situation was the very opposite when Titanic scored $1.84 billion worldwide.)
So, be careful when making Avatar vs. Titanic comparisons.
* Includes Monaco, and, weirdly, the former French colonies of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.
Avatar box office update
Update: In the U.S. and Canada, Avatar surpassed Titanic on Tuesday, Feb. 2, when its box office cume reached $601.1 million.
Avatar ultimately ended its initial domestic run with $749.8 million, in addition to $1.993 billion internationally, for a worldwide grand total of nearly $2.744 billion.
Following both domestic and international rereleases, Avatar has reached $760.5 million domestically and $2.087 billion internationally, for a worldwide grand total of $2.847 billion.
Gone with the Wind remains the top movie on the inflation-adjusted domestic box office chart.
Awards + cast
Despite accusations of racism and paganism, anti-Americanism, and pro-smokingism, Avatar has received nominations from the French Academy, the British Academy, the American Cinema Editors, the American Society of Cinematographers, the Writers Guild, the Art Directors Guild, and the Costume Designers Guild.
About a week ago, Avatar lost the Producers Guild Award to Kathryn Bigelow’s low-budget Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker. And this past weekend, Cameron lost the Directors Guild Award to former wife Bigelow, the first woman to ever win the DGA prize for a narrative feature.
Written and directed by Cameron, the Best Motion Picture Drama and Best Director Golden Globe winner stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Dileep Rao, Joel David Moore, Matt Gerald, and three-time Academy Award nominee Sigourney Weaver.
Avatar & the inflation factor
Jan. 29 update: As I’ve said before, the picture – or rather, the All Time Domestic Box Office Chart – looks quite different when inflation is taken into consideration, even while still ignoring 3D/IMAX surcharges for a movie like Avatar.
On the regular all-time domestic chart, Avatar is, for the time being, trailing a single title: Titanic. But on its inflation-adjusted all-time chart, Box Office Mojo estimates that Avatar is now at no. 26 (eight slots higher than it was ten days ago). James Cameron’s fantasy adventure is a notch above the 1965 James Bond flick Thunderball, starring Sean Connery, and below the 1978 John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John musical Grease.
Avatar is expected to gross somewhere between $25–$30 million this weekend. If so, that means it’ll be no. 21 on Monday, ahead of Grease, Disney’s The Lion King, Disney and Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins, Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks’ Disneyesque Forrest Gump, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, which has nothing to do with Walt Disney in any way whatsoever.
The 3D/IMAX premium factor
Now, if 3D/IMAX premium surcharges were factored in, Avatar would be way further down the inflation-adjusted domestic chart – which is supposed to better reflect the number of tickets each movie has sold. After all, 3D/IMAX surcharges represent a significant chunk of Avatar’s domestic gross: Somewhere between 23–33 percent.
Some quick math: Tickets for Avatar have ranged from $9–$17 or whereabouts, or between 30–40 percent above those for 2D movies. Add to the equation the fact that 80 percent of Avatar’s domestic gross has come from 3D and/or IMAX screenings and we get the 23–33 percent range mentioned in the previous paragraph.
So, even if you choose the lower end of the scale and deduct 25 percent from Avatar’s total earnings, James Cameron’s box office sensation would have taken in around $423 million domestically (representing the actual number of tickets sold when compared to 2D movies), placing it at …
… no. 65, ahead of Disney’s 2003 animated Finding Nemo and behind Burt Reynolds’ 1978 action-flick-for-hicks Smokey and the Bandit.
If you choose the topmost end of the scale, or 33 percent, Avatar’s 2D-equivalent revenues would have been around $376 million, which would place it at …
… no. 92, ironically, right behind another 3D movie, Vincent Price’s House of Wax (1953), and right ahead of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Rear Window, which starred James Stewart and Grace Kelly back in 1954.
Annual ‘average’ ticket prices’ pitfalls
As always, bear in mind that these are approximations based on “average” ticket prices (recently inflated by an increase in 3D/IMAX screenings) provided by the National Association of Theater Owners.
A truly accurate calculation of a film’s popularity at the box office – as in, its number of tickets sold – would be based on where a movie made most of its money, e.g., at top-dollar New York houses, at thousands of cheap small-town theaters, or at premium-charging 3D/IMAX theaters.
It’s also worth remembering that population increases, changes in audience demographics, changes in film production (studios cranked out far more product – hence, more competition – before the advent of television), changes in film distribution (movies didn’t open at 300 – let alone 3,000 – locations until the mid-1970s), and the growth of entertainment alternatives (home video, cable television, pay-per-view options) should all be taken into consideration when comparing the box office success of movies from different eras. And that some of the movies found on Box Office Mojo’s inflation-adjusted chart had one or more rereleases throughout the decades.
The effect of piracy on a movie’s box office performance remains debatable. It all depends on the type of movie (would you rather watch Avatar on your computer screen or at a 3D movie house?), the quality of the pirated material (high-definition copies vs. crummy reproductions), and where the copying is taking place (Beverly Hills and Tokyo or Lagos and Karachi, where most people who would buy 50-cent copies of Hollywood flicks wouldn’t be able to afford going to the movies, anyhow).
Avatar ahead of The Dark Knight – or is it?
Jan. 25: On Saturday, Jan. 23, James Cameron’s Avatar overtook Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight at the domestic box office: $542.5 million vs. $533.7 million.
Sure. Even so, Avatar still has quite some ways to go before it matches the number of tickets The Dark Knight sold in the U.S. and Canada last year.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, at least 65 percent of Avatar’s overseas box office and almost 80 percent of its domestic take have been generated at pricier 3D venues – some even pricier in the IMAX format. For comparison’s sake: The 2D The Dark Knight earned a mere 6.5 percent of its worldwide revenues from IMAX screenings.
That’s why when it comes to the actual number of tickets sold, Avatar still lags behind a whole bunch of other movies both domestically and internationally.
Gone with the Wind still no. 1
The Reporter adds that Avatar is now the highest-grossing film (if you ignore inflation) of all time in Chile, China, Spain, Russia, and Hong Kong (actually part of China, but never mind). It’s also the biggest Hollywood hit ever in India.
And yet the Reporter asserts that the actual no. 1 box office hit the world over remains a 70-year-old movie, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/David O. Selznick’s (mostly) Victor Fleming-directed Gone with the Wind, which, following its late 1939 debut (no mega-wide releases in those days), is supposed to have grossed $400 million worldwide, the equivalent of $6 billion today.
Now, although there’s no doubt that the multiple Oscar-winning Civil War romantic drama was a much bigger sensation upon its release than Avatar is or ever will be, the Reporter’s Gone with the Wind figures – if accurate – surely include latter-day rereleases as well.
Unsurprisingly, Gone with the Wind also tops the inflation-adjusted all-time domestic box office chart: $1.485 billion (including rereleases). In the extensive cast: Best Actress Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Best Supporting Actress Hattie McDaniel, Thomas Mitchell, Ona Munson, Barbara O’Neil, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, and Butterfly McQueen.
Six more top titles
The other top six films on the inflation-adjusted domestic box office chart are:
- George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) with $1.31 billion.
Cast: Mark Hamill. Carrie Fisher. Harrison Ford. Alec Guinness.
- Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965) with $1.05 billion.
Cast: Julie Andrews. Christopher Plummer. Eleanor Parker.
- Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) with $1.04 billion.
Cast: Henry Thomas. Dee Wallace. Drew Barrymore.
- Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) with $962 million.
Cast: Charlton Heston. Yul Brynner. Anne Baxter. Yvonne De Carlo. Edward G. Robinson. John Derek. Debra Paget.
- James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) with $943 million.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio. Kate Winslet. Gloria Stuart.
- George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) with $1.31 billion.
“Avatar Box Office” endnotes
Unless otherwise noted, “Avatar Box Office: Where Exactly on the All-Time Chart?” box office information via Box Office Mojo. Budget info – which should usually be taken with a grain of salt – via BOM and/or other sources.
Comments about Avatar and other titles being profitable or money-losers at the box office (see paragraph below) are based on the available data about their production budget, additional marketing and distribution expenses (as a general rule of thumb, around 50 percent of the production cost), and worldwide gross (as a general rule of thumb when it comes to the Hollywood studios, around 50–55 percent of the domestic gross and 40 percent of the international gross goes to the distributing/producing companies).
Bear in mind that data regarding rebates, international pre-sales, and other credits and/or contractual details that help to alleviate/split production costs and apportion revenues are oftentimes unavailable, and that reported international grosses can be incomplete (i.e., not every territory is accounted for). Also bear in mind that ancillary revenues (domestic/global television rights, home video sales, streaming, merchandising, etc.) can represent anywhere between 40–70 percent of a movie’s total take; however, these revenues and their apportionment are only infrequently made public.
Lastly, although a more accurate reflection of a film’s popularity (i.e., its number of tickets sold), inflation-adjusted estimates should be taken with extreme caution. For instance, they’re based on average domestic ticket prices (via the National Association of Theater Owners, unless otherwise noted) whereas numerous major releases scored a large chunk of their box office take at top-priced venues.
Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, James Cameron, and Sam Worthington Avatar images: Mark Fellman | Weta | 20th Century Fox.
“Avatar Box Office: Where Exactly on the All-Time Chart?” last updated in April 2022.