'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 fantasy 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, once on the planet of Pandora, goes – quite literally – native, becoming a long-legged, long-eared, long-eyed, blue-hued Na'vi. Stephen Lang (pictured) plays a totalitarian-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 (updated actual gross: $11.15 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'

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

Dec. 21 update: Thanks to better than expected Sunday business, James Cameron's Avatar grossed $77.02 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. Distributor 20th Century Fox had estimated a $159.2 million gross, but the futuristic action-adventure fantasy ended up taking in $165.5 million.

As per The Hollywood Reporter, the markets that brought in more than $10 million over the weekend (in some countries extending into last Wednesday/Thursday) were the following:

  • 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.

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.

In the U.S. and Canada, 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 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 2003, would be the actual record-holder if inflation is taken into account.

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, the title of Best December Opening proved to be elusive. Officially, that slot belongs to I Am Legend, Francis Lawrence's dystopian drama – a remake of The Omega Man – toplining Will Smith (in the old Charlton Heston role), Alice Braga, and Charlie Tahan.

Best 'original' debut?

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

And there goes 99.9 percent of the competition of the last 20 years.

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.

How profitable will 'Avatar' be?

Avatar's production costs, initially estimated at somewhere between $200 and $500 million, are now being reported within the $250–$350 million range. That doesn't include advertising, prints, and related distribution expenses.

As a rule of thumb, the producing and/or distributing studio receives 50–55 percent of a film's domestic box office gross and about 40 percent of the international take. Percentages, however, can vary dramatically depending on a variety of contractual factors.

Anyhow, Avatar will earn 20th Century Fox a profit only if its blue Pandorans turn out to have legs as strong as they're long. In case that happens, Fox won't have to sell what's left of its backlot and Los Angeles' Westside won't be getting a new suburb.

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.

'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.

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

James Cameron's Avatar was easily the big winner this past weekend (reminder: Dec. 18–20). But what about the other releases on the Top Five box office chart?

For starters, Marc Lawrence's Did You Hear About the Morgans?, the weekend's other wide release, debuted in fourth place with a measly $6.61 million from 2,718 sites. 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).

Trailing Avatar at no. 2, Disney's The Princess and the Frog brought in $12.18 million, lifting its cume to $44.71 million. Next in line was the Sandra Bullock sleeper blockbuster The Blind Side with $10.02 million, for a domestic total of $164.72 million.

Rounding out the Top Five, Chris Weitz's fantasy The Twilight Saga: New Moon scored $4.4 million for a cume of $274.59 million after five weeks. Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, and Taylor Lautner star.

Platform/limited releases: 'Up in the Air' & 'Nine' shine

Among limited/platform releases, Jason Reitman's Up in the Air can now be found among the Top Ten – at no. 8, to be exact – after expanding to 175 venues. Reitman's socially conscious comedy-drama pulled in $3.21 million for an early cume of $8.21 million.

Up in the Air has surely been helped by its numerous accolades from U.S. film critics. Besides, it's up for several Golden Globes and SAG Awards. George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, and Jason Bateman star.

Another early success story is Rob Marshall's Nine, which, despite mixed reviews, did solid business domestically on its debut weekend. Based on the stage hit inspired by Federico Fellini's 1963 Oscar-winning classic , the $80 million musical grossed $257,232 at four locations, or a remarkable $64,308 average. Nine stars the following:

Two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, 1989; There Will Be Blood, 2007) in the old Marcello Mastroianni role.

Best Actress Oscar winner Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, 2007).

Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2008).

Best Actress Oscar winner Sophia Loren (Two Women, 1961).

Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love, 1998).

Best Actress Oscar winner Nicole Kidman (The Hours, 2002).

Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Kate Hudson (Almost Famous, 2000).

Former The Black Eyed Peas member Fergie.

'The Lovely Bones' & 'Me and Orson Welles' in trouble

Like Nine, Peter Jackson's eagerly awaited The Lovely Bones also opened glowingly about ten days ago. The bad news: this past weekend it plummeted an alarming 61 percent, collecting $45,097 at three theaters for a barely passable $15,032 average. Total to date: $200,687. The $65 million supernatural crime drama seems to be headed for trouble. In the prestigious The Lovely Bones cast:

Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, 2007).

Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg (The Departed, 2006).

Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener, 2005).

Best Actress Oscar winner Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking, 1995).

Potential 2010 Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Stanley Tucci.

Also in trouble is Richard Linklater's $25 million-budget Me and Orson Welles, currently at 134 locations. Despite good reviews and the Zac Efron brand, the period drama has raked in a paltry $549,973 after four weekends out. Also in the cast: Claire Danes and (some) critics groups' fave Christian McKay as the Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai actor/filmmaker.

'A Single Man' & 'Broken Embraces'

Also in limited release, Tom Ford's $7 million psychological drama A Single Man, currently at nine theaters, has earned a total of $475,198 after two weekends out.

Based on a 1960s Christopher Isherwood novel, A Single Man stars 2009 Venice Film Festival Best Actor winner Colin Firth as a Los Angeles-based gay professor contemplating suicide following the unexpected death of his partner (Matthew Goode). Julianne Moore and Nicholas Hoult co-star.

And finally, Pedro Almodóvar's noirish Broken Embraces, currently at 30 venues, has earned $840,949 after five weekends out. Nine performer Penélope Cruz stars as an actress-escort romantically involved with her director (Lluís Homar) while at odds with her “sponsor” (José Luis Gómez).


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” last updated in July 2018.

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  1. Dante Washington says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

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

  12. Naviblue.com says:

    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 says:

    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.