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Avatar: James Cameron Fantasy Is Box Office Phenomenon

Avatar Sam Worthington Zoe SaldanaAvatar with Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington as an earthling who goes – literally – native on Pandora, a planet housing blue humanoid creatures, exotic beasts (e.g., Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, and fellow aliens), and the magnificent Ayram Alusing (Floating Mountains).
  • An undeniable box office phenomenon, James Cameron’s Avatar has broken a number of domestic records. Curiously, these have been mostly restricted to peculiar categories like Best 3D Performer, Best Weekend No. 3, and Best Non-Weekend Christmas Eve.

Avatar: James Cameron’s futuristic fantasy adventure passes $1 billion milestone at global box office

Jan. 4 update: Avatar – James Cameron’s 3D mix of fantasy, science-fiction, action/adventure, and social/environmental concerns – passed the $1 billion milestone worldwide on the first weekend of 2010 (Jan. 1–3), which also happens to be its third weekend out.

As found at boxofficemojo.com, after only 17 days Avatar’s domestic box office stands at $352.1 million; its international total has reached an estimated $670.2 million. Worldwide total: $1.022 billion.

For (loose) comparison’s sake: In its first 17 days in the domestic market, Titanic earned $241 million adjusted for inflation. Now bear in mind that James Cameron’s late 1997 shipwreck movie reached that figure without box-office-inflating 3D surcharges.

Of note, domestically Avatar earned $68.5 million (75 percent of which from higher-priced 3D sites) on Jan. 1–3, which means it has comfortably broken another record (not accounting for inflation). The previous record holder for weekend no. 3 was the Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire superhero flick Spider-Man, which raked in $45 million in 2002 (approx. $52 million in 2009–10).

No. 3 worldwide

If one ignores inflation and currency fluctuations, Avatar is trailing only three movies on the (U.S. dollar-based) worldwide box office chart:

Update: Avatar has since passed the $2 billion milestone worldwide.

Avatar vs. Titanic: Comparing floating mountains to floating icebergs

Inevitably, many (including us; see above) have compared Avatar’s box office grosses to those of James Cameron’s previous blockbuster, Titanic. For the most part, however, such comparisons are – at best – iffy.

To begin with, partly thanks to an abundance of 3D/IMAX screenings, ticket prices are on average much higher today: $7.46 in 2009–10 vs. $4.59 in 1998. In addition, most of Avatar‘s earnings have been generated at these premium 3D/IMAX houses; for instance, an adult must shell out around $17 to check it out at a 3D/IMAX AMC theater in Los Angeles.

There’s more: Back in 1998 Titanic was screened at fewer theaters than Avatar – 2,727 on its third weekend vs. Avatar’s 3,461 venues – and its running time is more than half an hour longer (194 min. vs. 162 min.).

All these things should be taken into account when comparing the two James Cameron-branded spectacles.

Best three-day weekend ever at domestic box office

Dec. 29 update: After falling behind Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes – which, with $24.8 million, shattered Christmas Day records – James Cameron’s futuristic fantasy adventure Avatar ended up victorious at North America’s Christmas Weekend (Dec. 25–27) box office, bringing in $75.6 million. Cume: $212.7 million.

Chiefly thanks to Avatar, Sherlock Holmes’ $65.4 million, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakel’s $50.2 million, and the $22.5 million earned by the Meryl Streep star vehicle It’s Complicated, the Top Ten movies on the domestic box office chart reached nearly $260 million. An official record.

The previous record holder was the July 18–20, 2008, weekend: $253.5 million, with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight leading the pack with $158.4 million.

In third place is the weekend of Nov. 20–22, 2009: $250 million largely thanks to Chris Weitz’s The Twilight Saga: New Moon, which scored an unexpected $142.8 million.

The runners-up are weekends topped by two Johnny Depp pirate flicks: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (July 2006) and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (May 2007).

Avatar Zoe SaldanaAvatar with Zoe Saldana. James Cameron’s futuristic fantasy adventure works as a sort of War of the Worlds in reverse, with human beings as the invading aliens.

More Avatar records: Best non-weekend Christmas Eve ever

Dec. 28 update: James Cameron’s 3D spectacle Avatar took in $11.2 million on Dec. 24, its seventh day out, thus boasting the best non-weekend (Mon.–Thu.) Christmas Eve ever (not adjusted for inflation).

In terms of overall Thursday grosses, Avatar’s Christmas Eve earnings landed it in the far more modest no. 39 slot. The record holder remains George LucasStar Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, which had its Day 1 on a Thursday in May 2005.

Thanks to inflationary pressures, James Cameron’s other box office phenomenon, Titanic, can be found at no. 37 on the Thursday chart. Back on Jan. 1, 1998 (Day 14), the romantic disaster melodrama (or disastrous romantic melodrama, depending on your take) scored $11.5 million.

As for the month of December, six movies hold higher Thursday rankings than Avatar:

  • Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003): No. 12 & no. 20.
  • Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002): No. 15 & no. 21.
  • David Frankel’s Marley & Me (2008): No. 18.
  • Jay Roach’s Meet the Fockers (2004): No. 28 & no. 31.
  • David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): No. 32.
  • Shawn Levy’s Night at the Museum (2006): No. 38.

Update: Avatar raked in $14.7 million on Thursday, Dec. 31 (Day 14), thus also ranking at no. 17 on the Best Thursday Domestic Box Office Chart.

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

Dec. 21: 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. Distributor 20th Century Fox had (at least officially) estimated a $159.2 million debut, 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.
  • U.K.: $14.2 million.
  • Germany: $13.2 million.
  • Australia: $11.3 million.
  • Spain: $11 million.
  • South Korea: $10.8 million.

Top 3D performer, but not top December release

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 fact, Avatar is now officially the top 3D movie of all time in the domestic market – which isn’t really saying much since most 3D releases haven’t performed all that well and there haven’t been all that many to begin with.

Now, here’s one record that Avatar has failed to break: The 2007 Will Smith star vehicle I Am Legend has (barely) retained the title of Best Weekend in December ($77.2 million; not adjusted for inflation and without the assistance of 3D surcharges).

Just bear in mind that Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which collected $72.6 million in late 2003, would be the actual record holder if inflation is taken into account (approx. $90 million without the assistance of 3D surcharges).

Avatar Stephen Lang Sam WorthingtonAvatar with Stephen Lang and Sam Worthington.

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, including I Am Legend (from the previously filmed novel The Omega Man) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

To date, the best opening weekend at the U.S. and Canada box office belongs to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, starring Christian Bale as Batman and Heath Ledger as The Joker. The sequel to Batman Begins earned $158 million in mid-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 much did Avatar actually cost? How profitable will it be?

Initially estimated at somewhere between $200–$500 million (!), Avatar’s production budget is now being reported within the $250–$350 million range. 20th Century Fox itself has claimed that the Pandora-set fantasy cost $220 million. That, of course, 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 district was born in large part as a result of the studio’s Cleopatra debacle back in the early 1960s.

Avatar plot & cast

Set in the 22nd century on the distant planet of Pandora – a treasure trove of minerals invaluable to human entrepreneurs – Avatar stars British-born, Australian-raised Sam Worthington as paraplegic U.S. marine Jake Sully, who, following his arrival on the planet, goes – quite literally – native, becoming a long-legged, long-eared, long-eyed, blue-hued Na’vi.

Following that (off-and-on) transformation, Sully finds himself at odds with totalitarian-inclined military commander Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), an all-around psychopath who makes Sterling Hayden’s Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove seem (at least moderately) sane.

Avatar is writer-director James Cameron’s first narrative feature since Titanic. Besides Sam Worthington and Stephen Lang, the cast includes Zoe Saldana, Giovanni Ribisi, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Dileep Rao, Joel David Moore, Matt Gerald, and three-time Academy Award nominee Sigourney Weaver.


Avatar: James Cameron Fantasy” endnotes

Unless otherwise noted, “Avatar: James Cameron Fantasy Is Box Office Phenomenon” 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, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Worthington Avatar images: Weta | 20th Century Fox.

Avatar: James Cameron Fantasy Is Box Office Phenomenon” last updated in June 2022.

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13 comments

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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

TK

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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AL -

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

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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.

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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.

Reply

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