- So far, Avatar records at the domestic box office have been mostly restricted to peculiar categories like Best 3D Performer, Best Weekend no. 3, and Best Non-Weekend Christmas Eve.
Avatar records: 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:
- Titanic (1997), with $1.84 billion.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio. Kate Winslet. Gloria Stuart.
- Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), with $1.11 billion.
Cast: Elijah Wood. Viggo Mortensen. Orlando Bloom. Ian McKellen.
- Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), with $1.06 billion.
Cast: Johnny Depp. Keira Knightley. Orlando Bloom.
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 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).
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 Lucas’ Star 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).
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 Records” endnotes
Unless otherwise noted, “Avatar Records: 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 various sources, including BOM.
Comments about a movie being profitable or a money-loser at the box office are based on the available data about its production budget, additional marketing and distribution expenses (as a general rule of thumb, around 50 percent of the production budget), and worldwide gross (as a general rule of thumb, 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 contractual details and data regarding pre-sales, rebates, and other credits that help to split/alleviate production costs and apportion revenues are oftentimes unavailable, and that reported international grosses can be incomplete (i.e., not every territory is accounted for).
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 gross at top-priced theaters.
Stephen Lang, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Worthington Avatar images: Weta | 20th Century Fox.
“Avatar Records: James Cameron Fantasy Is Box Office Phenomenon” last updated in April 2022.