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.