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Weekend Report: ‘Avatar’ Soars in Debut

by Brandon Gray
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December 21, 2009

The advent of Avatar obtained $77 million on approximately 7,000 screens at 3,452 sites over the weekend, claiming the highest-grossing opening ever for a movie that's neither a sequel, a remake nor a direct adaptation (though others had greater attendance). It was also the second highest-grossing December opening weekend after I Am Legend ($77.2 million). Overall weekend business surged 55 percent over the same weekend last year, but was down considerably from the comparable period in 2007, when I Am Legend and Alvin and the Chipmunks debuted.

With its advanced 3D presentation as a key selling point, Avatar handily set a new 3D opening weekend benchmark. Showing on 3,129 3D screens at 2,038 sites, the format accounted for an estimated $55 million of the gross. The previous highs were Up's $35.4 million and Monsters Vs. Aliens' $32.6 million. IMAX contributed $9.5 million at 178 sites, shatterring the IMAX opening weekend record previously held by Star Trek's $8.5 million at 138 sites. As for the audience breakdown, distributor 20th Century Fox's research indicated that 57 percent was male and 62 percent was aged 25 years and older.

A snow storm on the East Coast supposedly muted grosses for all movies. Fox claims that on Saturday business dropped precipitously for Avatar across the region, including New York City (down 18 percent), Philadelphia (down 57 percent), Washington, D.C. (down 75 percent) and Baltimore (down 86 percent), compared to a five percent slip nationwide from $26.8 million on Friday to $25.5 million on Saturday. On Sunday, after the storm had ended, the movie eased just three percent to $24.7 million. Snow storm or not, Avatar was positioned to hold up well for an event picture due to its pre-Christmas release. While frequently the most bustling time of the year, December is not the month for opening weekend records, because business is spread throughout the week over the holidays. Avatar director James Cameron's last picture, Titanic, was the extreme example of this, opening to a sensational $28.6 million on the same weekend in 1997 and then growing 24 percent over Christmas weekend. Titanic, of course, was a legendarily unique phenomenon that ran at blockbuster levels for months, ultimately becoming the highest-grossing movie ever at $600.8 million.

Despite Mr. Cameron's track record and the massive amount of hype in the years leading up to its release, Avatar was never a slam dunk. It's no small feat to successfully launch a fantasy or science fiction action-adventure that's not based on pre-established material, and it's a challenge to get audiences emotionally vested in computer-generated characters in a serious, partially-live-action setting. Recent history is littered with financial failures among similar movies, including Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Delgo and Battle for Terra. To counter that, not only did Fox carpet bomb the media with ads (including an episode of Fox's Bones dedicated to the characters camping out to see Avatar), but the marketing deftly drew people in on a human level, with a story that has resonated before (Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, etc.) and with a sense of wonder. Then, it delivered the goods with stunning spectacle.

On the foreign front, Avatar rocketed to $164.5 million in five days from 64 markets (which excluded the key markets of Japan, China and Italy). Of its 14,505 total screens, 26 percent were 3D, and they accounted for 56 percent of the gross. Add in the $77 million domestic haul, and Avatar's worldwide opening was $241.6 million, the ninth highest-grossing of all time and the biggest for a non-sequel.

While Avatar devoured the box office, there was nary a peep from fellow debut, Did You Hear About the Morgans? The romantic comedy featuring genre stalwarts Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker sputtered to $6.6 million on around 3,000 screens at 2,718 sites. While the movie's trailer explained the storyline of an estranged Manhattan couple that must live in the country and reconcile after witnessing a murder (and offered fish-out-of-water amusement), it was as if the rest of the marketing campaign gave up, waving the white flag before the more heavily-promoted It's Complicated even opened. The premise was perhaps too convoluted to strike a pronounced chord with audiences, but the ads simply showed the stars in random situations and the poster was nondescript, failing to establish context and creating an even greater disconnect. Distributor Sony Pictures' exit polling suggested that the audience was 60 percent female and 54 percent aged 30 years and older.

Last weekend's top-grossing picture, The Princess and the Frog, shrank by a sizable 50 percent, mustering $12.2 million, and its total grew to $44.7 million. The Blind Side held its ground again, sporting $10 million after a 33 percent drop. With $164.7 million in 31 days, the football-themed drama edged out The Proposal to become star Sandra Bullock's highest-grossing movie ever. The Twilight Saga: New Moon rounded out the Top Five with $4.4 million, down 45 percent for an enormous $274.6 million tally in 31 days, while Invictus retreated by an alarming 51 percent, grossing $4.2 million for a $15.9 million total in ten days.

Last Weekend
'Princess and the Frog' Leaps to the Top

This Timeframe in Past Years:
• 2008 - 'Yes Man,' 'Seven Pounds' Lead Quiet Pre-Christmas Weekend

• 2007 - 'I Am Legend,' 'Chipmunks' Enliven Box Office
• 2006 - 'Pursuit' Overtakes 'Eragon,' 'Web'
• 2005 - 'King Kong' Mighty But No Monster
• 2004 - 'Lemony' Licks Competition

Related Stories
• 12/19/09 - 'Avatar' Blasts Off on Opening Day
• 12/18/09 - 'Avatar' Shows Promise in Midnight Launch

Related Charts
Weekend Box Office Results
All Time December Opening Weekends
All Time Worldwide Openings



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