So How Much Money Can Avatar Make, Anyway?

Avatar may have just missed claiming I Am Legend's December-opening record a few weeks back, but its ungodly opening fortnight is setting James Cameron's epic up for history of another, even more durable kind. With $642 million already in the bank worldwide, is it time to ask when -- not if -- Avatar will usurp Titanic's all-time box-office title?

We might as well, though it's not quite as simple as that. While numbers are numbers and records are proverbially made to be broken, there is a kind of an apples and oranges factor at work here. After all, Titanic accrued the bulk of its historic $600 million domestic haul while spending 17 15 consecutive weekends at number one. Avatar won't do that, but it may not need to if it keeps up what it's accomplishing during the week: More than one-third of its $232 million to date has been earned between a Monday and Thursday, and its $19.4 million this past Monday -- its 11th day of release -- is entirely unprecedented. (That figure is almost double what The Dark Knight made domestically and triple what Titanic earned in their own 11th days.) Avatar's international pace, meanwhile, is even hotter, with more than $410 million having poured in since Dec. 15. It can and most likely will surpass half a billion this weekend, moving it past ever closer to the halfway point of Titanic's even $1.2 billion foreign gross after a fortnight.

Avatar has the obvious benefit of 3-D and IMAX surcharges added in as well, a vaguely incalculable factor that could account for anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of its gross to date. We do know that the cash from all 3-D screens represented around 77 percent of Avatar's second-week gross -- a 6 percent increase over its opening-weekend share. That suggests the technology's more important influence is in how it compels repeat viewings; viewers who were blown away by the 2-D, 35-millimeter version currently screening in 1,200 theaters are dropping another $15 to see it in three dimensions. That's another unprecedented phenomenon, but it probably ends there; the women whose Titanic freakdom drove that film's No. 1 streak aren't exactly swooning at the Leo-less, combat-driven romance between Jakesully and Neytiri. And even if they are, at these prices, their infatuation has a limit.

The part-genius/part-luck of its release date will continue to help going forward; people who fan themselves while talking about our record! Breaking! Christmas! seem to forget that it was the first Christmas to fall on a Friday since 1998. And it wasn't coincidental, either, that Avatar launched Dec. 18 -- virtually the same Friday when Titanic debuted in 1997. Fox and Cameron (with their partner Paramount) succeeded in making an event then, and they pretty much followed the same playbook by naturally owning the first weekend (snowstorms notwithstanding) and blowing out the consecutive holiday weekends afterward. That sets Avatar up for a mint in January, when it faces "competition" from the skunky likes of The Book of Eli, Tooth Fairy and Edge of Darkness.

But assuming it hasn't dropped off the top five by mid-February as films like Percy Jackson and The Wolfman approach, what kind of market share can Avatar expect to keep at that time? And what's it worth? That depends in part on how much of a story the next month's gross becomes; it'll break $1 billion globally by mid- to late-January, which places it squarely on track to knock off Titanic sometime this spring -- again assuming that Oscar nominations propel it through February, when even the skeptics will fall in line, and wins can push it through March. And -- this is a really big "and" -- assuming that it can keep the majority of those 3-D and IMAX screens, which Avatar should have to itself for at least a couple months.

So if we had to pin a number on Avatar, let's start at $1.3 billion, which comprises around $500 million domestic and $800 million foreign. It shouldn't do less than that, and it really shouldn't do less than $900 million abroad, all things considered (it has yet to even open in China). If it wins Best Picture at the Oscars, it'll hit at least $1.5 billion, with most of that bump coming domestically as Fox will have lost a chunk of overseas screens by then. So that's most likely a domestic gross approaching Titanic's record $600 million -- hell, let's just say it'll hit $600 million -- and maybe a foreign record burbling over the billion-dollar mark. It could happen. Either way, folks, you've paid for the sequel; if I'm overshooting anything now, I doubt I will be when Cameron offloads his next in four or five years. Let's just hope he comes around on the Avatar Holiday Special by then.


  • Ted Chalfen says:

    Pretty well written and very interesting article. I think I should point out some factual errors you made though. Titanic was on top of the box office for 15 weeks, not 17, and it made $1,242,091,767 worldwide, not an even billion.

  • You're absolutely right, Ted, thanks for pointing this out. I accidentally added in readjustments on two weekends. Regrets!

  • Steven Kar says:

    Though I wish your maximum prediction for AVATAR's worldwide gross would come true, I think you're being unreasonable. Equaling, much less beating TITANIC, will not happen even when you factor in IMAX, 3D, no competition, Oscar buzz... no way will it reach $1.843 billion.
    Best case scenario, I see it earning at least $1.2 billion and, at most, maybe a little over $1.4 billion when all is said and done.
    Speculating B.O. is fun.

  • John says:

    It was 17 weekends in a row.

  • NP says:

    "viewers who were blown away by the 2-D, 35-millimeter version currently screening in 1,200 theaters are dropping another $15 to see it in three dimensions"
    This is why I didn't bother with 35mm 2-D and went straight for the IMAX 3-D.. figured that was the _only_ way to see it.

  • Michael Adams says:

    Saw it for the third time yesterday at Sydney IMAX. Every session (I think the auditorium holds about 600) sold out - as it has been it opened. Down Under it's smashing records and closing in rapidly on the biggest-grossing film ever released. People clapped at the end of the film yesterday - which I can't remember an Australian audience ever doing outside of a premiere.
    In terms of repeat/extended business, I think there are a lot of people - a second wave, if you will - who want to see it in 3-D but are willing to wait until the crowds die down.
    I'm saying it'll end up with $480m in the US and $1.1b worldwide.

  • Probably should include the requisite- and obnoxious- inflation comparison too. $1.00 in 1997 money is about .76 in 2009 money. (US Dollars)

  • Bryand1972 says:

    Box office has updated the foreign number for Monday and we are at $726 million this rate Avatar should reach a billion by early next week at the latest!!!

  • JP says:

    I am going to see it for the second time because last week I couldn't even get in to one IMAX show. I just picked regular screen 3D, but even the tickets was hard to come by there, I had to order the ticket 1 day ahead of time. Then when I got there there weren't any seats left it was so packed I thought I have to sit on the stairs to watch the movie, and it was 35 minutes before the movie began too. At the end I finally found the only one seat in the middle in the top section that was open after searching for about 25 minutes. I say this movie will hit at least 1 Billion, no doubt. Like other people said, it is not even open in China yet and I am going to watch it for the second time at IMAX.

  • stolidog says:

    so, is it any good?

  • Dimo says:

    I know a movie is going to be huge when I see it twice. It is a rare occasion when I will throw down my hard earned dollars for a movie I have already seen. Not to mention paying $14 each time. As they said about "Titanic" during it's run..."Damm the doubters, full speed ahead!"
    BTW: Anything that overthrows the cinematic shit pile that is "Transformers 2" is reason to celebrate! SUCK IT Bay!

  • McSnarkster says:

    Not to mention that even before you add in the (ridiculous) surcharges for IMAX or 3D, ticket prices in general have gone up in the past decade (somewhat more than just the rate of inflation). All those 3D Avatar tickets cost about twice as much as Titanic tickets did. And .76 is not half of 1.

  • cwhitt26nyy says:

    Titanic made $1,842,900,000 worldwide
    1.2 billion overseas
    600 million domestic

  • Elizabeth says:

    "the women whose Titanic freakdom drove that film’s No. 1 streak aren’t exactly swooning at the Leo-less, combat-driven romance between Jakesully and Neytiri. And even if they are, at these prices, their infatuation has a limit."
    If I didn't know before that this article was written by a man, that sure would have given it away. Apparently one that doesn't know much about women.
    I'm one of those women that saw Titanic multiple times. Now I'm one of those women propelling Avatar past Titanic. Three times already, with viewings 4 and 5 already lined up on my schedule.
    Yes, women ARE swooning over Jakesully and Neytiri and the beautiful spectacle that is the world of Pandora. And like any great love, it has no limits.

  • AL - the critic says:

    Dimo you are so right. Nobody is willing to say it except for you that Michael Bay is TERRIBLE. I hated Transformers 2, except for 1 scene and he had Everything at his disposal to make it one of the best movies in a long time. He put 2 twin mini robots, who were cracking jokes all through the movie (so childish). It reminded me of the 3 Star Wars remakes, they remade those 3 movies for children to sell toys.
    Stolidog wrote, "So is it any good"? I don't know, we are all on this "AVATAR" blog to promote Transformers 2.
    I have never went to see a film twice, and I mean Never. However, I have never been seperated from reality while watching any other film, the way I have been while viewing AVATAR. So I may suck it up and dump more of my hard earned money into this movie. Fans have to support thr Greatest movie ever created, while showing Hollywood that we will fully support a film that is made with pure quality and not a film just thrown together so they can make a quick buck.
    Gi Joe - worst movie made in a long time, Cameron can take this title and make it a hit. Please do JD, "Go Joe"!

  • nano X says:

    -Long rich and decades stale James Cameron ---OBVIOUSLY accepting
    massive funding and vast market favors from the most awesomely
    genocidal regime in world history ---across the Pacific!
    What else could explain his wasting his time and ours with such
    worthless, unoriginal, circle-jerk techno-wampum?
    -BTW ---have you caught on that anyone over 20 who actually
    goes for this slop is either living with mom ---or worshipping
    his screensaver ---or BOTH!

  • L.S. says:

    While I have the benefit of hindsight (the movie has now crossed the one billion dollar mark), readers should have little doubt that Avatar has a real chance at smashing Titanic's box office record. The 3-D, IMAX aspect of the film will keep bootlegging down to a minimum as foreign audiences seek the genuine 3-D experience. With a January 4, 2010 opening in China and higher ticket prices expect Avatar to be at 1.5 billion within two-three weeks. Titanic's record falls as early as the end of January. I also want to point out that I am biased as this is the only movie in the last 20 years that I actually want to see again. Just an amazing experience.

  • Darren says:

    Wow.. were all you guys wrong or what!? James Cameron is the King of the boxoffice.. and Canadian 🙂 already at $1,689,630,947 and showing no signs of slowing down.. Will defenitly reach 2 billion and probably 2.5 billion.. could it reach 3?

  • steve says:

    i find it hilarious now how everyone was saying just 1 month ago that you would have to be a complete and total idiot to think that titanic would be beaten by avatar. yet here we stand just 1 month later and not only has it grossed more than titanic worldwide and internationally but it is not gaurenteed it will beat titanics domestic record and be the first movie to break the 2 billion dollar mark. well done mr. cameron, i cant wait for the next 2 movies.

  • Ken says:

    And today, it's official. Avatar has beaten Titanic on all fronts. It's funny reading some of the comments now. "beating titanic will not happen" lol
    I have a feeling it'll touch $700 million domestically sometime this summer...

  • KEVIN says:

    Ken, I agree it's funny to look back later at these posts, and to now know that Avatar blew past the $700 million domestic mark and $2.5 billion worldwide before February was over. Now, I think it's pretty safe to say that $800 million would be very difficult, and $3 billion probably won't happen, but who knows, someone could be correcting me this time next month.

  • xnubiax says:

    i personally believe that
    instead of showing how much money they
    are making, the should show how many
    tickets or dvds they are selling =/
    like cds... they dont say how much money M.J. made.... they
    just said he sold more than 17 m. records 😉
    we have to take in account inflation,too...
    but thats just me =]
    i dont know about this stuff.

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