Weekend Box Office (December 18 - 20, 2009)

by Gitesh Pandya

THIS WEEKEND A dozen years after scoring the biggest blockbuster of all-time, James Cameron returned to his comfortable spot at number one with his most expensive film to date, the sci-fi epic Avatar, which grossed more than every other film in the marketplace combined. On the other hand, Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker failed to charm audiences with their new date movie Did You Hear About the Morgans? which limped into fourth place with a weak opening. A massive blizzard rocked the east coast dumping up to two feet of snow in some areas causing movie theaters to see drastic cuts in attendance. Studios will now fight hard to capture lost business in the days ahead as most holdovers witnessed hefty declines.

After spending 15 consecutive weeks at number one in 1997 and 1998 with his last film Titanic, the king of the world was back atop the charts with the $77M opening weekend for Avatar, according to final studio figures. Utilizing the most advanced 3D imagery ever seen to date, the PG-13 film averaged a stellar $22,313 from 3,452 theaters and enjoyed the second largest December opening in history trailing only 2007's Will Smith thriller I Am Legend which bowed to $77.2M. Bumped to third place now is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King which banked $72.6M over its first Friday-to-Sunday period. However, the Peter Jackson smash debuted on a Wednesday in 2003 when ticket prices were lower so its $124.1M five-day opening is still more impressive and included more tickets sold over the comparable three-day portion.

Still, Avatar was a giant at the box office and its figure would have been even higher had it not been for the blizzard. Fox reported that theaters in heavily-populated markets like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. reported huge Friday-to-Saturday sales declines with some plunging by 70-80%. Grosses typically rise on Saturdays. Nationwide, Avatar bowed to $26.8M on Friday, slipped 5% to $25.5M on Saturday, and then eased a scant 3% to $24.7M on Sunday when it started to see some of that lost business come back in.

The road ahead looks encouraging for the Na'vi pic. Audiences have been loving the film giving it a terrific A average from CinemaScore. An exceptionally high 92% of those polled will definitely recommend the film. Adult men made up the largest quadrant as expected. Studio research showed that 57% of the crowd was male and 62% was 25 and older. Exhibitors have been racing the clock all year to get 3D screens installed in time for Avatar's opening and the new hardware, which allows for extra high ticket prices, paid off. 3D was available on 59% of the screens but they accounted for 71% of the gross. 2,032 theaters offered at least one extra-dimensional screen for a total of 3,124 3D screens including 178 in IMAX where consumers pay even more.

Mediocre effects-driven action films opening in mid-December typically can reach three times their opening weekend figure. Something as well-liked as Avatar could certainly play well through the holidays and quadruple its bow giving it a great chance of breaking $300M domestically. Should the legs be amazing, the cume would rise much higher. Of course, Cameron taught us all not to predict a final gross after just three days of release with Titanic which coincidentally also generated the second best December opening ever, at the time.

Critics were mostly positive on Avatar which also won four Golden Globe nominations last Tuesday including Best Picture - Drama and Best Director. The film's official reported budget is $230M, but industry insiders have estimated that the true production cost without marketing expenses is closer to $300M.

Cameron's films have always powered their way to muscular numbers overseas and Avatar was no exception as Fox rolled out the film in over 100 international territories with Japan, China, and Italy being the only major markets still to come. The sci-fi actioner grossed a scorching $159.2M overseas this weekend boosting the global opening to a towering $236M. The figures were on par with the most recent worldwide assault from Hollywood - last month's 2012 - which launched with $65.2M domestically, $165M internationally, and $230M globally. That doomsday pic is now at $733M after five weeks of play and Avatar should be able to have better legs thanks to a stronger product and the upcoming holiday break. Its global gross should have no problem soaring higher.

Be sure to check BoxOfficeGuru.com all week for daily updates on Avatar.

Last week's top grosser The Princess and the Frog was hit hard in its second weekend of nationwide play tumbling 50% to $12.2M. Disney is hoping that after moms get done with holiday shopping they will focus their attention on bringing the little ones to see Tiana and pals. Cume to date is $44.7M. Things get tense on Wednesday when Fox launches Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel aiming for the same crowd with its followup to 2007's $217.3M-grossing megahit.

Sandra Bullock scored another milestone as her runaway hit The Blind Side became the only film of 2009 to spend five consecutive weeks in the top three. The uplifting football pic slipped just 33% to $10M and lifted the incredible cume to $164.7M. Warner Bros. looks likely to surpass $200M with this one. Liam Neeson's Taken was the only other film this year to spend five weeks in the top three, although they were not consecutive.

Nobody heard about the new Hugh Grant-Sarah Jessica Parker comedy Did You Hear About the Morgans? which opened poorly in fourth with just $6.6M. Sony opened the critically-panned pic in 2,718 sites and averaged a weak $2,434. Mid-December romantic comedies The Holiday and The Family Stone both debuted with $12-13M and reached final takes that were five times larger. A similar holiday run for Morgans would lead to a max of about $35M. Studio research showed that the turnout was as expected - 60% female and 54% 30 and older.

Summit's vampire sequel The Twilight Saga: New Moon ranked fifth with $4.4M dropping 45% in its fifth round. The runaway sensation has now grossed $274.6M to date making it the year's fifth largest blockbuster. A final take of at least $290M is likely.

Following its soft opening weekend and a week of snubs on the awards circuit, Clint Eastwood's Invictus suffered a large drop in the second weekend falling 51% to $4.2M. Missing out on a Best Picture nod from the Globes and SAG's top ensemble acting nomination, the Warner Bros. release is now on a rocky road ahead with a disappointing $15.9M in ten days. Produced for $60M, the Morgan Freeman pic looks to end its run after the holidays with $40-50M.

Following some low declines, A Christmas Carol fell a steep 50% to $3.4M pushing the total for Disney's 3D extravaganza to $130.8M. Paramount expanded its Oscar hopeful Up in the Air from 72 to 175 theaters and grossed $3.2M jumping into the top ten at number eight. The George Clooney starrer earned six major Globe nominations which the studio is using to help sell the pic to broader audiences. Air's average was a sturdy $18,344 and the total now stands at $8.2M with a nationwide expansion set for Friday on Christmas Day to about 1,800 playdates.

Dropping 42% to $2.9M was Lionsgate's soldier drama Brothers which has grossed $22.4M to date. Rounding out the top ten was the comedy Old Dogs with $2.3M, off 47%, for a $43.6M sum.

Another round of awards contenders opened in limited release this weekend. Leading the way was the Daniel Day-Lewis musical Nine with $257,232 from only four sites for a sensational $64,308 average for The Weinstein Co. Another music-related pic debuting was Fox Searchlight's Crazy Heart starring Jeff Bridges which collected $82,664 from four locations for a solid $20,666 average. The five-day total since its Wednesday launch is $107,996. Both actors earned Globe nominations while Nine also scored a Best Picture nod in the Comedy or Musical category.

The top ten films grossed $126.3M which was up 60% from last year when Yes Man opened in the top spot with $18M; but down 15% from 2007 when National Treasure: The Book of Secrets debuted on top with $44.8M.

Compared to projections, Avatar was very close to my $75M forecast. Did You Hear About the Morgans? opened well below my $13M prediction.

Get earlier box office updates and analysis by following BoxOfficeGuru.com on Twitter.

Rewind and read the BoxOfficeGuru.com story from Titanic's opening weekend in December 1997.

Check the UPDATED charts for the Golden Globe Nominees, Top December Openings and Top Hits of 2009.

For a NEW review of Avatar visit The Chief Report.

Be sure to check back on Thursday for a complete summary, including projections, for next weekend when Sherlock Holmes, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel , and It's Complicated all open on Christmas Day.

Marketplace - Shop for DVDs, electronics, books, and posters at discounted prices:

# Title Dec 18 - 20 Dec 11 - 13 % Chg. Theaters Weeks AVG Cumulative Distributor
1 Avatar $ 77,025,481 3,452 1 $ 22,313 $ 77,025,481 Fox
2 The Princess and the Frog 12,185,949 24,208,916 -49.7 3,475 3 3,507 44,717,721 Buena Vista
3 The Blind Side 10,021,280 15,055,258 -33.4 3,407 5 2,941 164,725,525 Warner Bros.
4 Did You Hear About the Morgans? 6,616,571 2,718 1 2,434 6,616,571 Sony
5 The Twilight Saga: New Moon 4,407,598 7,960,394 -44.6 3,035 5 1,452 274,598,319 Summit
6 Invictus 4,203,171 8,611,147 -51.2 2,125 2 1,978 15,877,956 Warner Bros.
7 A Christmas Carol 3,443,464 6,833,190 -49.6 2,070 7 1,664 130,813,354 Buena Vista
8 Up in the Air 3,210,132 2,394,344 34.1 175 3 18,344 8,216,051 Paramount
9 Brothers 2,889,121 5,014,426 -42.4 2,009 3 1,438 22,350,518 Lionsgate
10 Old Dogs 2,340,575 4,409,772 -46.9 2,630 4 890 43,625,471 Buena Vista
11 2012 2,204,588 4,351,565 -49.3 2,242 5 983 159,028,696 Sony
12 Armored 1,284,591 3,504,374 -63.3 1,538 2 835 14,254,614 Sony
13 Precious 1,203,741 1,280,550 -6.0 1,003 7 1,200 40,084,412 Lionsgate
14 Ninja Assassin 932,447 2,707,470 -65.6 1,155 3 807 36,419,535 Warner Bros.
15 Planet 51 810,137 2,267,038 -64.3 1,349 5 601 38,496,770 Sony
16 The Road 660,274 505,878 30.5 396 4 1,667 4,926,949 Weinstein Co.
17 Fantastic Mr. Fox 598,941 1,396,148 -57.1 540 6 1,109 17,385,916 Fox
18 Everybody's Fine 601,659 2,194,210 -72.6 1,003 3 600 8,855,646 Miramax
19 Boondock Saints II 406,783 793,393 -48.7 404 8 1,007 9,365,018 Apparition
20 Nine 257,232 4 1 64,308 257,232 Weinstein Co.
Top 5 $ 110,256,879 $ 62,668,905 75.9
Top 10 126,343,342 82,656,512 52.9
Top 20 135,303,735 94,306,374 43.5
Top 20 vs. 2008 135,303,735 85,817,010 57.7

Last Updated: December 20, 2009 at 6:10PM ET