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avatar_posterMONDAY AM 4TH UPDATE: 20th Century Fox keeps refining its figures to show James Cameron’s Avatar actuals were better than expected — Friday: $26,752,099, Saturday: $25,529,036, Sunday: $24,744,346. Grosses dropped only -3% from Saturday to Sunday and finished the weekend with an opening number of $77.025481 million (not $77.3M or $76.8M or $73M as the studio previously reported). That placed second to 2D I Am Legend‘s $77.2M record for best December debut ever at the domestic box office. Internationally, the epic surisingly shot up +3% from Saturday to Sunday for $165.5M (not $159.2M) in 106 countries. That’s a $242.5M worldwide bow, including total 3D gross of $54,754,983, which Fox calls the “highest original content (non-sequel, non-franchise) opening weekend ever”.

The big budget 3D technopic was the widest 3D release to date: 2,023 3D runs of 3,452 North American theaters. At the 178 domestic IMAX theaters, a record breaking $9.5M was made. IMAX globally had to add shows to keep up with demand. Overseas, 58 Imax venues grossed $4.1M. The worldwide IMAX total of $13.6M bettered Transformers 2‘s previous record of $11.3M this summer. 

SUNDAY AM: 20th Century Fox just said its big budget 3D technopic Avatar grossed $159.18M internationally from 106 territories (the six territories that have not opened are Japan, China, Italy, Poland, Argentina, and Uruguay). With North America’s snow-slowed grosses of $73M, that’s a worldwide total of $232.18M which the studio says is the “highest original content (non-sequel, non-franchise) opening weekend ever”.

Richard White
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Even with depressed U.S. grosses because of massive snowstorms in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC, Avatar finished Saturday only -5% down from Friday. That puts the technopic at $27M Friday and $25.6M for Saturday. With $20M estimated for Sunday, it’s officially a $73M pre-Xmas domestic opening weekend.

It’s the best-ever debut for director James Cameron, best-ever opening for a 3D movie with  IMAX shattering their records and selling out every seat and adding shows to keep up with demand. It’s also the 2nd best December debut of all time because of Avatar‘s 3D ticket price premium compared to 2D films. (No. 1 is still 2007′s I Am Legend at $77,211,321, and No. 3 is now 2003′s The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King at $72,629,713.) I’m told that 59% of 3D locations accounted for 71% of total business. The pic received a Cinemascore of “A” across every qudrant. In terms of audience demos, exit polling showed 57% male/43% female, and 38% under age 25/62% over age 25. 

Avatar is playing in 3,542 total theaters in North America with 3D presentations at 2,038 sites accounting for almost 60% of the grosses. (Those 2,038 3D locations break down into 3,129 3D screens and 179 all 3D IMAX.) “Can’t wait for the East Coast snow to clear,” one upbeat Fox exec tells me about studio hopes for the tentpole to have legs because of “the tremendous word of mouth”.

Overseas, it’s playing in 17,222 screens (including a total 3D/3D Imax screens of 5,360, and a total IMAX 3D screens of 81). Fox just announced Avatar made a whopping $159.18 internationally for a worldwide weekend total of $232.1 million – more than 2012‘s hefty $225M 5-day debut number because of Avatar‘s higher 3D ticket prices. 

Remember, this is the biggest 3D release in movie history, spurred by the excitement surrounding Cameron’s creation of the Fusion Camera System technology for photo-realistic computer-generated characters through motion capture animation. He wrote the script for Avatar back in the mid-1990s when he and Stan Winston co-founded Digital Domain. But when he took the screenplay to their special effects lab, Cameron was told it was just not possible to make the film with the current technology. So he sat on the project for more than a decade until there could be “several thousand 3-D screens” capable of showing the film.

did_you_hear_about_the_morgans_posterAll of Saturday’s pics were slammed by the snow. Disney’s holdover The Princess And The Frog placed No. 2 with a $12.2M weekend, or -49.5% from a week ago. Alcon Entertainment’s and Warner Bros’ The Blind Side finished No. 3 with $10.3M and closing in on $200M cume by still showing incredible legs at the start of its 5th week in release. Meanwhile, Sony Pictures is relieved that all the focus on Avatar this weekend meant it won’t attract much attention for the underperforming debut of Did You Hear About The Morgans? Starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant in what Rotten Tomatoes scored only 10% positive reviews — i.e. it’s unwatchable – the so-called comedy was lucky to open to $7M this weekend (not the $10M even the studio hoped for). It opened in 4th place Friday with just $2.5M from 2,758 runs and +5% for $2.6M Saturday. “Not what we wanted, but it will hang in throughout the holidays,” a too-optimistic Sony exec told me.

Here’s the Top 10:

1. Avatar (Fox) NEW [3,452 runs] Fri $27M
, Sat $25.6M, Wkd $73M
2. Princess And The Frog (Disney) Week 2 [3,475] Wkd $12.2M (-49.5%), Cume $44.7M
3. The Blind Side (Warner Bros) Week 5 [3,407] Wkd $10.3M, Cume $164.7M
4. The Morgans? (Sony) NEW [2,718] Fri $2.3M, Sat $2.4M, Wkd $7M
5. New Moon (Summit) Week 5 [3,035] Wkd $4.4M, Cume $274.6M
6. Invictus (Warner Bros) Week 2 [2,125] Wkd $4.1M, Cume $15.8M
7. A Christmas Carol (Disney) Week 7 [2,070] Wkd $3.4M, Wkd $130.7M
8. Up In The Air (Paramount) Week 3 [175] Wkd $3.1M, Cume $8.1M
9. Brothers (Relativity/Lionsgate) Week 3 [2,009] Wkd $2.6M, Cume $22M
10. Old Dogs (Disney) Week 4 [2,630] Wkd $2.2M, Cume $43.5M

Precious (Lionsgate) Week 7 [1,003 runs] Wkd $1.1M, Cume $40M
The Road (Weinstein) Week 4 [396] Wkd $665K, Cume $4.9M
Fantastic Mr Fox (Fox) Week 5 [575] Wkd $600K, Cume $17.3M
Nine (Weinstein) NEW [4] Wkd $246K, Per Screen $61K
Young Victoria (Apparition) NEW [44] Wkd $249K
Me And Orson Welles (Freestyle) Week 4 [134] Wkd $159K, Cume $554K
A Single Man (Weinstein) Week 2 [9] Wkd $137K, Cume $469K
Crazy Heart (Fox Searchlight) NEW [4] Wkd $84K, Per Screen $21K, Cume $109K
The Lovely Bones (Paramount) Week 2 [3] Wkd $40K, Cume $197K

SATURDAY PM: Studio sources tell me that 20th Century Fox’s Avatar is +15% from Friday when comparing matinees. But today’s total will likely be down from yesterday because of the severe winter storm on the Northeast where it could drop -5% or more today.

SATURDAY AM: Fox’s official figure for Avatar‘s Friday total is $27M from its 3,542 total domestic theatrical release, including a slow $3.5M from midnight screenings in 2,000 venues. But the North American grosses, aided by higher 3D ticket prices, picked up steam throughout the day. Now America’s East Coast is slammed by a monster winter storm which could slow the movie’s grosses. 

FRIDAY 11:15 PM UPDATEFox insiders are telling me that Avatar will make $27.5M to $28M Friday. As for the bad weather, an exec tells me: “Storm was in the Carolinas area today/tonight and I understand that the DC area was getting hammered. I would have to say we did get hurt in that area of the country, and I am worried about the effect in the Northeast tomorrow. Even so, this movie is getting such an incredibly positive reaction that I believe the word of mouth is just viral and those that may have been prevented from seeing the movie today or tomorrow will be there eventually without fail.”

FRIDAY 10 PM UPDATE: I’m told by sources that Avatar has been playing even with Star Trek all day until about 2:30 PM PT when 20th Century Fox’s overall gross and location average for James Cameron’s much ballyhooed technopic started pulling ahead. But 2D Star Trek had 400 more locations vs Avatar‘s 3,542 total domestic theatrical release, and a shorter running time vs Avatar‘s 160 minutes, and $7M in “pre-opening shows” vs. Avatar‘s $3.5M midnights in about 2,000 dates with a 3D ticket price premium. Of course, Star Trek had the benefit of decades of franchise awareness, while Avatar is a wholly new creation. Now Fox could be looking at mid- to high- $20sM for today from its 2,038 domestic 3D locations and 3,129 North American 3D screens and 179 all 3D domestic IMAX. Because the filmmakers are very concerned about the severe winter storm hitting America’s East Coast and the huge negative effect it could have on the domestic box office. If there isn’t significant attendance loss, then Hollywood is now estimating this pre-Xmas 3-day weekend’s opening grosses at $80M — or $27M for Friday including the midnight shows, then $30M on Saturday, and $23M on Sunday when most colleges and high schools are out Monday.

FRIDAY 9:30 AM: ‘Twas the weekend before Christmas, but I refused to wax poetic about whether James Cameron’s long awaited, much discussed, big budget technopic would be a gigantic hit, big hit, or modest hit until I saw some actual numbers. That’s because 20th Century Fox’s Avatar finally opened in theaters last night in North America and 106 countries overseas after years of fan curiosity, followed by recent months of negative buzz, followed by the past two weeks of mostly strong reviews (82% positive on Rotten Tomatoes). No one is predicting disaster for the film. Especially not after I can reveal what Steven Spielberg said after screening it on the Fox lot: “The last time I came out of a movie feeling that way it was the first time I saw Star Wars.”

Rival studios reported to me this morning that midnight U.S. and Canada grosses were around $3 million with the 3D ticket premium. Then 20th Century Fox announced its official midnight screening gross of $3,537,000, including the 3D ticket price premium, from approximately 2000 theatres.

*UPDATE: I also just heard that internationally, Avatar is huge in Australia with $4.8 million from Thursday and Friday combined, and running double what 2012 which did not have a 3D premium did there, or $2.3 million. (By contrast, New Moon opened to $7.8M.) In Germany, Avatar debuted to $1.7 million, compared to 2012‘s $1.4M. (New Moon did $2.2M.) In Korea, Avatar opened to $1.4M, behind 2012‘s $1.9M. (New Moon made only $800K.) But in the UK, opening day was hit by snow so grosses are running behind with Avatar $2.8M vs 2012 $3.2M.*

*2ND UPDATE: Meanwhile, a giant snowstorm is expected on the America’s East Coast, with 20 inches predicted for Washington DC.*

I’ve learned that today’s matinees are running about 10% better than this summer’s Star Trek. But with 3D films, matinees are normally higher because a larger portion of the business is done via presales. Then again, Fox is warning that the weekend before Christmas can be dicey for moviegoing because everyone is more focused on shopping and partying. And weather is already a factor. But movies which open the weekend before Christmas tend to do better multiples than normal from opening box office to lifetime. While in the summer tentpoles tend to have lifetime grosses of 3 to 3.5 times opening weekend. Whereas movies that open the weekend before Christmas can do 4, 5 or even 6 times the opening weekend. So if Avatar were to do $75M to $85M this weekend, it could still get to a $300M-$400M lifetime total which is what the movie’s negative cost is thought to be.

Right now, Hollywood has refined its original unfocused $60M-$75M prediction upwards to $85 million for the 3-day domestic weekend — better than the all-time December opening of I Am Legend at $77,211,321 but only because of Avatar‘s 3D ticket price premium.*

Remember, this is the biggest 3D release in movie history, spurred by the excitement surrounding Cameron’s creation of the Fusion Camera System technology for photo-realistic computer-generated characters through motion capture animation. He wrote the script for Avatar back in the mid-1990s when he and Stan Winston co-founded Digital Domain. But when he took the screenplay to their special effects lab, Cameron was told it was just not possible to make the film with the current technology. So he sat on the project for more than a decade until there could be “several thousand 3-D screens” capable of showing the film.

This opening weekend, Avatar is playing in 3,542 total theaters domestic (including 2,038 3D locations and 3,129 3D screens and 179 all 3D IMAX), and into 17,222 screens overseas (including a total 3D and 3D Imax screens of 5,360, and a total IMAX 3D screens of 81).

Now, that’s a wide 2D release but by no means the widest. And yet last night there weren’t the usual reports pouring in to me of long lines and sold-out theaters after midnight, except for the IMAX 3D venues. Instead, Internet chatter and anecdotal accounts indicate moviehouses showing Avatar were not playing to packed houses — at least not yet.

Tracking, too, had been mixed for the film. While there was big awareness and wannasee among males of all ages, girls and women weren’t there at all. In fact, rival studios kept pointing out to me tht upcoming Sherlock Holmes was tracking better than Avatar in all quadrants.

Nevertheless, Fox is expecting Avatar to have legs domestically well into January. In any case, it’s expected to outperform internationally (not unlike 2012 did earlier this holiday season.) As for those dopey media comparisons to James Cameron’s legendary Titanic legs? Apples and oranges.