Another Avatar Weekend: Legion Takes Its Lumps

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20th Century Fox / WETA / Reuters

Actors Sam Worthington, left, and Zoe Saldana as Jake and Neytiri in Avatar

Ho-hum. Another week, another record-shattering performance by Avatar. According to early studio estimates, the James Cameron enviro-war fantasy won the weekend with $36 million, nearly double the take of its nearest competitor, the sci-fi epic Legion. In its sixth week out of the chute, Avatar made more money, way more, than any picture on the post–Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, and almost all of those films were in their first days of release.

In the also-ran sweepstakes, the debut of Legion edged out another battle of angels and devils, The Book of Eli, $18.2 million to $17 million. The Tooth Fairy, a PG comedy starring Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson as a killer hockey player consigned to putting cash under kids' pillows, finished a close fourth with $14.5 million. The other new release, Extraordinary Measures, with Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford, earned less than half that. This true-life story, of a father's quest to find a treatment for his two dying children, was the first theatrical feature from CBS Films. Audiences took it for a disease-of-the-week TV movie, and why should they pay for that when they could see the 3-D wonders of Pandora for the first or fifth time?

Winning the weekend was the least of Avatar's triumphs. Nearly completing its march into Guinness World Records, the green movie with the blue people has earned $552.8 million in North America, and later this week should pass Cameron's own 1997 Titanic ($600.8 million) as the all-time domestic champ. Avatar is even closer to the record for worldwide ticket sales: at an estimated $1.836.1 billion, it's just $6 million behind Titanic's $1.842 billion. And it will reach that number tomorrow, unless the world ends tonight. Of course, there has been inflation in the past dozen years; Avatar still has to top Titanic's real-dollar domestic gross of $943.3 million, as adjusted by Box Office Mojo. (Another calculation has the real-dollar Titanic take at about $800 million.) Either way, though, Cameron's doing fine.

And though it would be unseemly for the writer-director to want still more booty, he may well reap gold, in the form of statuettes for Best Picture and Best Director, on Oscar night. At the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Golden Globe Awards on Jan. 17, Cameron was a semisurprise winner as Best Director, besting his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, who was nominated for The Hurt Locker. That exemplary Iraq war drama, which won most of the critics' awards, earned just $12.7 million in its domestic release and $3.4 million abroad, for a worldwide total of $16.1 million — less than Avatar amassed at the North American box office last night. Not to equate artistic merit with commercial success, but the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences do like their winners to be movies and actors who have been seen. Almost nobody saw The Hurt Locker; nearly everybody has seen Avatar, and the stragglers will catch up.

The same logic should help Sandra Bullock in her Oscar search. After 10 weeks in theaters, her sports-inspirational drama, The Blind Side, dropped out of the top 10 (all the way down to 11), but it ain't done yet. Bullock won Best Actress awards from the Golden Globe crowd and, on Jan. 23, the Screen Actors Guild; the former long shot is now the favorite to cop an Oscar (over previous front runner Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia). There's no question that the movie's out-of-nowhere success — a $234 million domestic gross on a modest $29 budget — has propelled Bullock toward the front of the Oscar fray, with little enthusiasm from the critics.

The converse is that films starring other actors nominated for Golden Globe or Screen Actors Guild awards, and which received indulgent praise from critics, have stirred hardly a murmur at the wickets. Colin Firth's A Single Man has earned just $4.5 million in seven weeks of release; Emily Blunt's The Young Victoria, $6.8 million in six weeks; Carey Mulligan's An Education, $8.3 million in 16; Woody Harrelson's The Messenger, just $744,200 after 11 weeks in limited release; and Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer's The Last Station, $230,700, second week, limited. All that free publicity, all those talk-show appearances, and barely $20 million worth of tickets among the five.

Only Jeff Bridges' Crazy Heart is picking up box-office steam, thanks to his Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild wins. This low-budget drama about a tough-living country singer, which was originally made as a TV movie, is gaining momentum at just the right time. Fading fast is another, much more expensive musical. Nine, which was eligible for five Globes and won none, is the season's biggest box-office disappointment: just $18.1 million on an $80 million budget. At this rate, Rob Marshall's star-clogged downer won't even earn as much as a modest CGI sci-fi feature released early this fall: 9 will outgross Nine. The Weinstein Co. will suffer a plague of red ink, while Cameron is declared king of the universe.

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

1. Avatar, $36 million; $552.8 million, sixth week
2. Legion, $18.2 million, first weekend
3. The Book of Eli, $17 million; $62 million, second week
4. The Tooth Fairy, $14.5 million, first weekend
5. The Lovely Bones, $8.8 million; $31.6 million, seventh week
6. Sherlock Holmes, $7.1 million; $191.6 million, fifth week
7. Extraordinary Measures, $7 million, first weekend
8. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, $6.5 million; $204.2 million, fifth week
9. It's Complicated, $6.2 million; $98.7 million, fifth week
10. The Spy Next Door, $4.8 million; $18.7 million, second week