Avatar vs. Titanic box office: Battle of the James Cameron blockbusters
Avatar vs. Titanic. Some just can’ let go. And that, it seems, includes us.
Anyhow, if interested below is a brief side-by-side overview of the box office performances of screenwriter-director James Cameron’s two epic blockbusters, released 12 years apart.
But before we proceed: Keep in mind that current domestic – and international – ticket prices are considerably higher than they were in 1998. In the U.S.: $7.18 vs. $4.59, as per the National Association of Theater Owners.
Besides, even while taking inflation into account – as one must in order to get a more accurate understanding of the number of tickets each movie has sold – the record-breaking Avatar has been greatly helped by premium charges at 3D/IMAX theaters. According to The Hollywood Reporter, almost 80 percent of its domestic box office gross and 65 percent of its overseas gross have come from costlier 3D venues. (See how 3D/IMAX surcharges can add around 23–33 percent to Avatar’s total domestic gross.)
Lastly, the current low value of the U.S. dollar and the relatively recent opening up of China and Russia, two of the biggest international markets for Hollywood movies, have provided a great boost to Avatar’s international figures.
With that in mind, below are a few basic comparisons between Avatar and Titanic.
Domestic opening-day box office
In the U.S. and Canada, Avatar collected $26.7 million from 3,452 locations on its first day out, last Dec. 18. This figure includes $3.5 million earned from Thursday midnight screenings.
Titanic earned $28.6 million ($45 million today) from 2,674 locations on its opening weekend, Dec. 19–21, 1997.
Avatar’s first-weekend gross: $77 million – thus clearly ahead of Titanic even if 3D/IMAX surcharges are factored in.
A little further context: Chris Weitz’s The Twilight Saga: New Moon took in $72.7 million on its first day out last fall: A domestic box office record previously held by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Not far behind, Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen scored $62 million on its Wednesday debut last summer.
Note: New Moon, The Dark Knight, and Revenge of the Fallen are all sequels, always a plus when it comes to opening-weekend – and, for that matter, opening-day – grosses. Also worth pointing out, none of the three titles is in 3D.
Score: New Moon wins.
Number of weekends at the top of the domestic chart
Avatar topped seven consecutive weekends in the domestic market, from mid-December to the end of January, when the futuristic fantasy adventure was dethroned by the Channing Tatum-Amanda Seyfried tearjerker Dear John.
Titanic remained the no. 1 movie in the U.S. and Canada for 15 weekends, until finally being dethroned by Stephen Hopkins’ Lost in Space in early April.
Score: Titanic wins.
All-Time Domestic & Worldwide Box Office Chart (including inflation-adjusted)
On Feb. 2, Avatar flew past Titanic to become the no. 1 movie on the All-Time Domestic Box Office Chart: $601.6 million vs. $600.8 million. Avatar had already overtaken Titanic at the global (including the U.S. and Canada) box office about a week ago.
Taking inflation into account, as per the National Association of Theater Owners’ annual ticket-price average, Titanic would have earned around $940 million in the U.S. and Canada in 2009.
To date (Feb. 24), Cameron’s futuristic fantasy adventure has grossed $691.7 million domestically and $1.775 billion internationally, for a worldwide grand total of $2.466 billion.
Titanic earned $1.242 billion overseas, for a worldwide total of $1.843 billion.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, Titanic would have grossed $2.45 billion in 2010 US dollars – or about $16 million less than Avatar.
March 2022 update: Avatar’s final domestic figure, including rereleases (notably, a dismal domestic relaunch in late summer 2010): $760.5 million; worldwide: $2.847 billion.
Titanic’s final domestic figure, including rereleases: $659.4 million; worldwide: $2.202 billion.
Updated score: Titanic wins domestically (inflation-adjusted); Avatar likely wins worldwide.
Remember: Although Avatar had the advantage of 3D surcharges in 2009–10, Titanic’s worldwide 3D gross – costlier tickets – in 2012 was an astonishing $350.5 million. What makes this score less than 100 percent reliable is the issue of currency fluctuations. Scroll down for more detailed information.)
Number of tickets sold domestically
When it comes to actual domestic ticket sales, Avatar still lags behind not only Titanic but also a whole array of movies released decades ago.
Boxofficemojo.com estimates that Avatar is currently (late February 2010) no. 15 on the inflation-adjusted All-Time Domestic Box Office Chart. Titanic, without 3D surcharges, is no. 6.
If things continue as they’ve been so far this month, Avatar will need between ten days and two weeks to reach the no. 14 slot, currently occupied by Richard Marquand’s Return of the Jedi (1983), with $715.7 million.
And then things get more difficult: At no. 13, William Wyler’s multiple Oscar-winning 1959 epic Ben-Hur is listed with an adjusted $745.7 million, right behind Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980) with $747.1 million. Avatar will need quite a bit of steam to surpass these two.
Compounding matters, Tim Burton’s 3D fantasy Alice in Wonderland opens in theaters on March 5. The Na’vi will then be mercilessly forced out of their sacred IMAX/3D houses, where, as mentioned further up, they’ve earned about 80 percent of their domestic gross. (Distributor 20th Century Fox, however, is reportedly considering a year-end relaunch.)
A little more inflation-adjusted context: Released in late 1939 and brought back several times since, David O. Selznick’s VIctor Fleming-directed Civil War romantic drama Gone with the Wind remains the top blockbuster ever domestically – and possibly overseas as well.
Score: Gone with the Wind wins.
March 2022 update: Avatar ultimately earned $760.5 million domestically, or no. 14 on the Inflation-Adjusted All-Time Domestic Box Office Chart. Since the release of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, which landed at no. 11, James Cameron’s fantasy adventure has gone down one slot.
Once again, bear in mind that the figures above are approximations based on “average” ticket prices provided by the National Association of Theater Owners.
As discussed elsewhere on this site, an accurate calculation of a film’s popularity at the box office – i.e., number of tickets sold – would be based on where a movie made most (or a significant chunk) of its money, e.g., top-dollar houses in pricy urban areas, thousands of cheap small-town theaters, matinees for kiddies, or costlier 3D/IMAX theaters.
Avatar & Titanic cast info
The winner of Golden Globes for Best Picture (drama) and Best Director, Avatar is up for nine Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. (Update: Avatar eventually won 3 Oscars: Best Cinematography [Mauro Fiore], Art Direction [production designers Rick Carter & Robert Stromberg; set decorator Kim Sinclair], and Visual Effects.)
Avatar cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, three-time Oscar nominee Sigourney Weaver (Aliens, 1986; etc.), Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Dileep Rao, Joel David Moore, Matt Gerald, and Laz Alonso.
Titanic won 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Notably, it was bypassed in the Best Actor and Best Screenplay categories.
Titanic cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, 1997 Oscar nominees Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Billy Zane, Victor Garber, Suzy Amis, Danny Nucci, Ioan Gruffudd, veterans Bernard Hill (Gandhi) and David Warner (Morgan!), and Best Actress Oscar winner Kathy Bates (Misery, 1990) as Margaret “Molly” Brown (a.k.a. “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”).
“Avatar vs. Titanic box office: James Cameron” notes
The box office weight of currency fluctuations
 Whereas back in 1998 the U.S. dollar was very strong, in 2010 it has been very weak. In other words, most top foreign currencies, when converted, could buy way fewer dollars in 1998 than today; e.g., 1,000 Japanese yen bought US$7.50 in January 1998, but US$10.70 in January 2010.
So, if 1 million tickets at 1,000 yen each were sold for Titanic in Japan in 1998 and 1 million tickets at 1,000 yen each were sold for Avatar in 2010 (we’re ignoring inflation and 3D/IMAX surcharges here), when converted to U.S. dollars, box office figures would read approximately $7.5 million for Titanic and $10.7 million for Avatar. For the same number of tickets sold.
That’s quite a discrepancy when we’re discussing eight- or nine-figure amounts: Titanic grossed $196 million in Japan in 1998; in 2010 US dollars (taking into account only currency fluctuations), that would represent a staggering $278 million. Avatar, for its part, has grossed a 3D/IMAX-boosted $131 million at the Japanese box office as of late February 2010. (Update: Avatar ultimately took in $172 million in Japan.)
Even the domestic box office – which includes both the US and Canada – has been (paradoxically) strengthened by the weak U.S. dollar: The Canadian dollar was worth 70 cents in January 1998; in January 2010, it was worth 96 cents, a valuation of about 35 percent.
That means the addition of approximately US$3.5 million to every $10 million Canadian dollars earned by Avatar at the “domestic” (the Canadian side) box office when compared to the same amount (in Canadian dollars) earned when Titanic was the James Cameron blockbuster breaking international box office records.
Titanic’s top international markets
 Including rereleases (3D version in 2012, 2017, 2020), Titanic’s top international markets are: Japan ($201.4 million), China ($145 million), Germany ($130 million), France ($129.1 million), the United Kingdom/Ireland ($114.1 million), Brazil ($70.5 million), Italy ($68 million), Spain ($44.1 million), Australia ($38.9 million), Mexico ($27 million), and The Netherlands ($27 million).
“Avatar vs. Titanic box office” endnotes
Unless otherwise noted, “Avatar vs. Titanic Box Office: Which Is the Most Successful James Cameron Movie?” box office information via Box Office Mojo. Budget info – which should be taken with a grain of salt – via BOM and/or other sources (e.g., the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Screen Daily, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Deadline.com, etc.).
Comments about Avatar, Titanic, and other titles being hits/profitable or flops/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, domestic/international sales/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 may be incomplete (i.e., not every territory is fully – or even partially – 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.
Currency exchange source: x-rates.com. According to the website, most of their pre-2009 exchange rates were culled from Federal Reserve Bank and International Monetary Fund data.
Pandora’s Floating Mountains and Sam Worthington Avatar movie images: 20th Century Fox.
Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio Titanic movie image: 20th Century Fox | Paramount Pictures.
“Avatar vs. Titanic Box Office: Which Is the Most Successful James Cameron Movie?” last updated in February 2023.