Snow Job for the Avatar Opening?

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It snowed in the rainforest yesterday, and the 10-ft.tall Smurfs of Avatar took the hit. James Cameron's science-fiction epic earned $73 million on its opening weekend at North American theaters, according to early studio estimates. That was more than the next 50 films combined, but still a bit less than the stratospheric predictions of some industry analysts, who were measuring Avatar against Cameron's last fiction feature, Titanic.

Well, forget that. Titanic set records that may never be broken, including being the No. 1 box-office attraction for 15 consecutive weeks, from Dec. 1997 to the end of March 1998 — the weekend after it won a record-tying 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The sinking-ship drama finally racked up $600 million stateside, and twice as much abroad, for a $1.8 billion total theatrical take. That made it the all-time top-grossing movie (sixth in real dollars, after Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, The Sound of Music, E.T. and the 1956 The Ten Commandments). But Cameron's last blockbuster was a once-every-20-years phenomenon; the gross of his new picture may be titanic, but it won't be Titanic.

The producers of Avatar will have to earn their return the new-fashioned way: by showing it in a fancy format and charging more for it. Moviegoers certainly paid Lexus prices to see the Cameron vehicle this weekend. A ticket for one adult at an IMAX 3-D performance of Avatar at Manhattan's Lincoln Square 13 costs $18.50 (plus $2 if you order through Fandango). Yet, even with higher admission fees, Avatar took in only half of what New Moon, the second episode in The Twilight Saga, did a month ago in its first weekend. Indeed, New Moon earned the same as Avatar's entire weekend take in its first Fri. night.

Then again, as Groucho might have said, Avatar is better than no tar at all. The happy news for 20th Century Fox, which laid out about $400 million for the movie's production and marketing budgets, is that Avatar mimicked Titanic in pulling in more than twice as much coin abroad ($160 million and counting). Other hopeful auguries: Avatar pulled an A+ rating from CinemaScore's tally of people who had just seen the movie; its score from reviewers in the Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes samplings is a robust 83%; and it has no serious competition until next March for the 3-D screens on which most of its showings take place.

And, for Pete's sake, it can't snow all winter. A Fox executive quoted by Reuters "noted that an enormous snow storm along the East Coast crippled business for all movies." That makes sense. Cities from the Carolinas to New York were carpeted in a foot to two feet of the white stuff, making traveling ill-advised; and some folks planning a Saturday night at the movies, especially The Big Movie, might have stayed home. There's only one problem with the Fox statement: it isn't true. A check of the numbers for the rest of this weekend's top 10 movies, on Box Office Mojo's daily chart, reveals that all of them sold more tickets on Saturday than on Friday. Only Avatar dipped, by 5%. And, whatever the weather, the overall box office was up a spectacular 58% from the same weekend last year, leading the 2009 tally past the $10 billion mark for the first year ever. So what do we call the alibi for Avatar's Saturday drop? A snow job.

On the rest of the top 10, all the holdover movies slipped from a third to a half of their last-weekend take (The Blind Side holding the sturdiest), except for the Oscar favorite Up in the Air, which soared 30% by adding 103 venues to last week's 72; it amassed nearly as much per screen as Avatar, and at relative bargain-basement prices. One new romantic comedy in wide release was meant to lure a more mature demographic than Avatar, but attracted almost nobody. Did You Hear About the Morgans?, with Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant as a married couple on the lam from a killer, cadged a feeble $7 million and immediately entered the Witness Protection program.

Of the films with eyes for Oscar, or laden with critics awards the past week, Nine, A Single Man, The Young Victoria, Crazy Heart and The Lovely Bones all did moderate business in a handful of theaters. Fantastic Mr. Fox, the stop-motion animated feature that picked up awards this past week from the New York and L.A. film critics' groups, actually dropped 57% in ticket sales; the power of the press continues to be impotent. The critics' darlings, if they're to gain traction at all, must wait for the free publicity they may receive from next month's Golden Globe awards and the Oscar nominations.

Avatar faces a quicker, stiffer challenge from the debuts of a big romantic comedy (It's Complicated, with Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin), a big action picture (Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. as the martial-arts sleuth) and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, plus the long-awaited wide release of Up in the Air. The competition of that imposing lineup suggests a cloudy forecast for Avatar, with or without snow.

Here are the weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office

1. Avatar, $73 million, first weekend
2. The Princess and the Frog, $12.2 million; $44.8 million, fourth week
3. The Blind Side, $10 million; $164.7 million, fifth week
4. Did You Hear About the Morgans, $7 million, first weekend
5. The Twilight Saga: New Moon, $4.4 million; $274.6 million, fifth week
6. Invictus, $4.1 million; $15.8 million, second week
7. Disney's A Christmas Carol, $3.4 million; $130.8 million, seventh week
8. Up in the Air, $3.1 million; $8.1 million, third week
9. Brothers, $2.6 million; $22.1 million third week
10. Old Dogs, $2.3 million; $43.6 million, fourth week