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Weekend Box Office Review: Avatar Defies Skeptics and Snowstorms, Earns $77 Million in Debut Weekend

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If Avatar were the most expensive movie of all-time, there might be some responsibility to score the biggest opening-weekend of all time. But, at $240 million, Avatar was not the most expensive movie ever. 2012 ($260 million), Spider-Man 3 ($275 million) and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End ($300 million) all cost more. Heck, thanks to 2012 (remember when Roland Emmerich was known for cheap effects that looked expensive?), it was not even the most expensive non-sequel. But expectations are a dangerous thing, so how much Avatar pulled in this weekend will not matter as much as perception of said numbers. If the press jumps on the 'mere' $73 million opening sprint the way they crucified King Kong's $50 million 3-day and $66 million five-day opening, then the film may forever be considered a disappointment no matter how much it grosses in the end. On the other hand, if the number is looked at in a realistic fashion, then we can all acknowledge that this was a pretty darn-impressive opening weekend for a film with major long-term potential. Let's begin...

The much anticipated and debated (amongst film nerds at least) Avatar debuted this weekend with $77 million. That's the second-biggest December opening in history, behind the $77.25 million debut of Will Smith's I Am Legend. In Avatar's defense, I Am Legend was an hour shorter, had a great tag-line that doubled as an easy-to-understand plot synopsis ("The last man on earth is not alone."), and had the added buzz of the debuting trailers for The Dark Knight. While Warner Bros. held its non-IMAX Dark Knight trailer off the internet until Sunday night, Paramount did Fox no similar favors, releasing its Iron Man 2 teaser online two days before Avatar's opening day. It's also worth noting that Avatar actually opened on fewer screens than many of the top December openings. On the other hand, Avatar debuted in countless 3D and mini-IMAX screens, which increased the general ticket prices to more than overcome the running-time and screen-count disadvantage. For what it's worth, it beat Up's $68 million opening, taking the record for 3D opening weekends. But Avatar did break one very notable record. It is the biggest debut in history for a completely unaffiliated original movie. By that, I mean it was not a sequel, not a franchise adaptation, not a literary adaptation, and not a star-vehicle. It's also racked up $164 million overseas, for a global total of $241 million.

So far, general word of mouth is strong, with those who didn't go in with months of anticipation and expectations pretty much being blown away by the 3D visuals, photo-real special effects work, and large-scale action spectacle (my parents saw it on opening day and loved it). But long-term predictions would be pure guesswork at this point. If we argue that the Saturday and Sunday snowstorms prevented otherwise interested moviegoers from checking out the picture, then we can either expect stronger than normal weekday sales or inflated second-weekend grosses. We'll know more after its second weekend, when it will attempt to use positive buzz to overcome the sure-fire smash weekend debut of Sherlock Holmes. So I'll just toss out the following math: If Avatar performs like the alleged flop King Kong (4.36x its opening weekend), it can expect to gross $335 million. If it performs like Titanic (it won't but let's do the math anyway), it'll do 20.9x times its opening weekend figure for $1.61 billion in the US. Obviously that isn't going to happen, but I will say that January 2010 seems on paper a lot quieter than January 2009. So it won't likely run into the problem that last year's holiday releases did (Marley and Me, Bedtime Stories, Yes Man, and Seven Pounds), where the usual leggy holiday and post-holiday season got kneecapped by uncommonly popular January releases (Gran Torino, Taken, Paul Blart Mall Cop).

If it needs to be said, Avatar was never, ever going to reach the upper-realms of the opening weekend chart. There has never been a December opening that even topped $80 million, let alone $100 million and beyond. Before this weekend, no completely original and star-less movie had opened north of $68 million (The Day After Tomorrow). Furthermore Avatar had to deal with a brutally negative entertainment press that basically made stuff up to make the movie look doomed ('it cost $500 million!' 'the 3D made our previous audiences sick!'). It was a 2.75 hour movie with no stars and a difficult to explain premise, plus 3D visuals that frankly looked so much better in theaters that the teaser, trailer, and photos were a little underwhelming to the uninformed. Topping off its sea of troubles that would have felt more at home in A Serious Man, we had those brutal snowstorms over the weekend. On the other hand, the 'wow, it's great' surprise factor worked wonders for Jurassic Park, as people like myself had absolutely no idea how good it was going to be until those Thursday advance-night showings on June 10th, 1993. Surprise artistic success is always better for long-term box office than expected brilliance. One thing we learned this weekend, never ever bet against James Cameron.

Before I dash, a bit of non-Avatar news (not much of it out there). Did You Hear About the Morgans? opened with just $6.6 million, so it'll get hammered by It's Complicated next weekend. The Blind Side, at $164 million, is now Sandra Bullock's highest-grossing movie and the biggest sports movie of all time. Plus, by next week at the latest, it will be the second-highest-grossing 'based on a true story' movie in history, behind the relative non-fiction of The Passion of the Christ. The Princess and the Frog dropped 49%, bringing its ten-day total to a somewhat disappointing $44 million. It will need all the holiday cheer that it can muster to cross the $100 million mark. A Christmas Carol dropped 49%, as a result of losing its IMAX and 3D screens to you-know-what. Its total stands at $130.8 million, and Disney is hoping to use the Christmas season to get this one past $150 million. Invictus dropped 51% and now stands at $15 million. Any hopes of grossing more than $35 million will depend on Oscar traction in the next month.

In limited release-land, Jeff Bridge's Crazy Heart opened on four screens, with a $82,664 gross for an okay $20,666 per-screen average. Emily Blunt's The Young Victoria more or less flopped in limited-release terms, earning just $8,300 per each of its 20 screens for a $160,069 opening weekend. Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones dropped 60% on its three screens. Better news came to Rob Marshall's critically-savaged musical, Nine. Despite poor reviews, it still pulled in $64,308 per screen on four screens for a $257,232 opening. It goes wide on Christmas day. And since Christmas day falls on a Friday this year, the films in play next weekend (Sherlock Holmes, Its Complicated, etc) won't have to contend with that box-office pit of death known as Christmas Eve. I'm really not sure why Alvin and the Chipmunks 2 and Up in the Air ($3.2 million this weekend on 175 screens, $8.2 million total) are opening this Wednesday, aside from fear of Sherlock Holmes. Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, the much-anticipated Robert Downey Jr. vehicle is likely to be a monster over its opening weekend, since it was frankly more anticipated than the harder-to-explain Avatar.

Sorry for the shorter than normal wrap-up, but life gets in the way sometimes. In the meantime, for my pick for favorite film of the decade, everything I've written about Avatar up to now, my picks for worst of 2009 (best will come later in the week), read and follow Mendelson's Memos.

Scott Mendelson