Box Office Guru Wrapup: Avatar Soars to #1 Spot

Also, The Princess and the Frog holds on at #2.

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This weekend a dozen years after scoring the biggest blockbuster of all-time, James Cameron returned to his comfortable spot at number one with his most expensive film to date, the sci-fi epic Avatar, which grossed more than every other film in the marketplace combined. On the other hand, Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker failed to charm audiences with their new date movie Did You Hear About the Morgans? which limped into fourth place with a weak opening. A massive blizzard rocked the east coast dumping up to two feet of snow in some areas causing movie theaters to see drastic cuts in attendance. Studios will now fight hard to capture lost business in the days ahead as most holdovers witnessed hefty declines.

After spending 15 consecutive weeks at number one in 1997 and 1998 with his last film Titanic, the king of the world was back atop the charts with the estimated $73M opening weekend for Avatar. Utilizing the most advanced 3D imagery ever seen to date, the PG-13 film averaged a stellar $21,147 from 3,452 theaters and enjoyed the second largest December opening in history trailing only 2007's Will Smith thriller I Am Legend which bowed to $77.2M. Bumped to third place now is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King which banked $72.6M over its first Friday-to-Sunday period. However, the Peter Jackson smash debuted on a Wednesday in 2003 when ticket prices were lower so its $124.1M five-day opening is still more impressive and included more tickets sold over the comparable three-day portion.

Still, Avatar was a giant at the box office and its figure would have been even higher had it not been for the blizzard. Fox reported that theaters in heavily-populated markets like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. reported huge Friday-to-Saturday sales declines with some plunging by 70-80%. Grosses typically rise on Saturdays. Nationwide, Avatar bowed to $27M on Friday, slipped 5% to $25.7M on Saturday, and is estimated to drop by only 21% to $20.4M on Sunday when the studio believes it will start seeing some of that lost business start coming back in. Many students have no school on Monday so Sunday evening is expected to be busy.

The road ahead looks encouraging for the Na'vi pic. Audiences have been loving the film giving it a terrific A average from CinemaScore. An exceptionally high 92% of those polled will definitely recommend the film. Adult men made up the largest quadrant as expected. Studio research showed that 57% of the crowd was male and 62% was 25 and older. Exhibitors have been racing the clock all year to get 3D screens installed in time for Avatar's opening and the new hardware, which allows for extra high ticket prices, paid off. 3D was available on 59% of the screens but they accounted for 71% of the gross. 2,032 theaters offered at least one extra-dimensional screen for a total of 3,124 3D screens including 178 in IMAX where consumers pay even more.

Mediocre effects-driven action films opening in mid-December typically can reach three times their opening weekend figure. Something as well-liked as Avatar could certainly play well through the holidays and quadruple its bow giving it a great chance of breaking $300M domestically. Should the legs be amazing, the cume would rise much higher. Of course, Cameron taught us all not to predict a final gross after just three days of release with Titanic which coincidentally also generated the second best December opening ever, at the time.

Critics were mostly positive on Avatar which also won four Golden Globe nominations last Tuesday including Best Picture - Drama and Best Director. The film's official reported budget is $230M, but industry insiders have estimated that the true production cost without marketing expenses is closer to $300M.

Cameron's films have always powered their way to muscular numbers overseas and Avatar was no exception as Fox rolled out the film in over 100 international territories with Japan, China, and Italy being the only major markets still to come. The sci-fi actioner grossed a scorching $159.2M overseas this weekend boosting the global opening to a towering $232.2M. The figures were on par with the most recent worldwide assault from Hollywood - last month's 2012 - which launched with $65.2M domestically, $165M internationally, and $230M globally. That doomsday pic is now at $733M after five weeks of play and Avatar should be able to have better legs thanks to a stronger product and the upcoming holiday break. Its global gross should have no problem soaring higher.

Last week's top grosser The Princess and the Frog was hit hard in its second weekend of nationwide play tumbling 50% to an estimated $12.2M. Disney is hoping that after moms get done with holiday shopping they will focus their attention on bringing the little ones to see Tiana and pals. Cume to date is $44.8M. Things get tense on Wednesday when Fox launches Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel aiming for the same crowd with its followup to 2007's $217.3M-grossing megahit.

Sandra Bullock scored another milestone as her runaway hit The Blind Side became the only film of 2009 to spend five consecutive weeks in the top three. The uplifting football pic slipped just 33% to an estimated $10M and lifted the incredible cume to $164.7M. Warner Bros. looks likely to surpass $200M with this one. Liam Neeson's Taken was the only other film this year to spend five weeks in the top three, although they were not consecutive.

Nobody heard about the new Hugh Grant-Sarah Jessica Parker comedy Did You Hear About the Morgans? which opened poorly in fourth with just $7M, according to estimates. Sony opened the critically-panned pic in 2,718 sites and averaged a weak $2,575. Mid-December romantic comedies The Holiday and The Family Stone both debuted with $12-13M and reached final takes that were five times larger. A similar holiday run for Morgans would lead to a max of about $35M. Studio research showed that the turnout was as expected - 60% female and 54% 30 and older.

Summit's vampire sequel The Twilight Saga: New Moon ranked fifth with an estimated $4.4M dropping 45% in its fifth round. The runaway sensation has now grossed $274.6M to date making it the year's fifth largest blockbuster. A final take of at least $290M is likely.

Following its soft opening weekend and a week of snubs on the awards circuit, Clint Eastwood's Invictus suffered a large drop in the second weekend falling 52% to an estimated $4.2M. Missing out on a Best Picture nod from the Globes and SAG's top ensemble acting nomination, the Warner Bros. release is now on a rocky road ahead with a disappointing $15.8M in ten days. Produced for $60M, the Morgan Freeman pic looks to end its run after the holidays with $40-50M.

Following some low declines, A Christmas Carol fell a steep 50% to an estimated $3.4M pushing the total for Disney's 3D extravaganza to $130.8M. Paramount expanded its Oscar hopeful Up in the Air from 72 to 175 theaters and grossed an estimated $3.1M jumping into the top ten at number eight. The George Clooney starrer earned six major Globe nominations which the studio is using to help sell the pic to broader audiences. Air's average was a sturdy $17,714 and the total now stands at $8.1M with a nationwide expansion set for Friday on Christmas Day to about 1,800 playdates.

Dropping 48% to an estimated $2.6M was Lionsgate's solider drama Brothers which has grossed $22.1M to date. Rounding out the top ten was the comedy Old Dogs with an estimated $2.3M, off 48%, for a $43.6M sum.

Another round of awards contenders opened in limited release this weekend. Leading the way was the Daniel Day-Lewis musical Nine with an estimated $247,000 from only four sites for a sensational $61,750 average for The Weinstein Co. Another music-related pic debuting was Fox Searchlight's Crazy Heart starring Jeff Bridges which collected an estimated $84,000 from four locations for a solid $21,051 average. The five-day total since its Wednesday launch is $110,000. Both actors earned Globe nominations while Nine also scored a Best Picture nod in the Comedy or Musical category.

The top ten films grossed an estimated $122.2M which was up 58% from last year when Yes Man opened in the top spot with $18M; but down 17% from 2007 when National Treasure: The Book of Secrets debuted on top with $44.8M.

Author: Gitesh Pandya, Box Office Guru!

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