One of the riskiest movies of all times is now officially one of the most successful at the box office.
When "Avatar" opened, its solid but far from stellar results left 20th Century Fox uncertain about whether the $430 million that it and two financing partners had invested to produce and market the 3-D film would pay off.
Less than three weeks later, there's no doubt. Director James Cameron's science-fiction epic on Sunday became only the fifth movie in history to gross more than $1 billion worldwide and, by far, was the fastest to do so.
The first three days of 2010 were spectacular for the movie industry, a feat considering that no new movies opened Friday. Every film in the top 10 dropped less than 38% from the previous weekend; a drop of less than 40% usually is seen as a modest figure.
Three of last week's releases -- "Sherlock Holmes," "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" and "It's Complicated" -- continued to have strong box-office appeal, but "Nine" was unable to recover from its disastrous start.
Total receipts were up 50% from the first weekend last year, setting Hollywood off to a strong start after a year in which domestic ticket sales grew 10% and attendance rose nearly 6%, according to Hollywood.com.
Ticket sales for "Avatar" fell only 10% in the U.S. and Canada to a studio-estimated $68.3 million, the biggest-ever third-weekend take. It blew away the previous record of $45 million set by "Spider-Man" in 2002, even accounting for inflation.
With $352.1 million already in the bank from domestic theaters, "Avatar" is on track to end up with at least $450 million domestically and perhaps significantly more if declines stay modest.
But "Avatar" has been strongest overseas, where it grossed $133.5 million in 110 markets this weekend, bringing its total to $670.2 million. It is already the fourth-highest grossing movie internationally and soon is expected to become the second, surpassing the $752 million collected by "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."
"Avatar" already is the highest-grossing film ever in Russia, the fourth-highest in Spain and Australia, and the second-biggest U.S. movie ever in France, India and South Korea. It opens Monday in China, an increasingly lucrative market for effects-laden pictures.
Its only real competition in raking in more money than any film ever is Cameron's last film, "Titanic," which grossed $1.8 billion in 1997 and 1998. To beat that mark, "Avatar," which is currently at $1.03 billion, would have to keep generating big returns well into February or March.
Theaters with 3-D screens have accounted for about 75% of its returns in the U.S. and Canada and 59% to 88% in major foreign countries.
Ticket sales for Warner Bros.' re-imagining of "Sherlock Holmes," with Robert Downey Jr. in the starring role, dropped 38% in its second weekend, more than any other movie in the top 10. But with $38.4 million this weekend and a domestic total of $140.7 million, it's on solid ground given its $90-million production budget.
"Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" slid 25% from its opening, collecting $36.6 million and bringing its total ticket sales since Dec. 23 to a healthy $157.4 million. Fox and New Regency spent $70 million to produce the family film.
Universal Pictures' romantic comedy "It's Complicated," starring Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, fell 15% in weekend receipts, bolstering director Nancy Meyers' reputation for making movies that play well for a long period of time. It grossed $18.7 million over the weekend and has collected a total of $59.1 million domestically. If declines stay small, Universal and Relativity Media should make good on the roughly $85 million they spent to make the movie.
The musical adaptation "Nine," which was financed by Weinstein Co. and Relativity, dropped only 22% from its Christmas Day opening in wide release. After a dismal start, however, its $4.3-million weekend leaves it with a total of just $14 million.
Several movies in the top 10 saw ticket sales increase this weekend, an unusual occurrence. Receipts for "The Blind Side" grew 10%, and "The Princess and the Frog" rose 11%.
But "Princess," Disney's first hand-drawn cartoon in five years, is at roughly the same domestic total after four weeks in wide release as such financially disappointing recent animated features from the studio as "Bolt" and "Meet the Robinsons."
Among movies playing on only a handful of screens, "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp and the late Heath Ledger, took in a solid $130,817 at four theaters, bringing its total after two weeks to $348,677.
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