With no East Coast blizzards holding back moviegoers this time, Santa delivered the goods to Fox and James Cameron amid a $263 million three-day weekend that was the biggest ever for the domestic box office.
The 3D epic “Avatar” dropped off only 3 percent from last week’s $77 million premiere, taking in $75 million over the holiday weekend, bringing its North American gross to $212.3 million in two weeks of release.
It may have ruled the pack -- but the pack wasn’t far behind. The overall box office generated at least $263 million (with some estimates ranging as high as $285 million) of business over the three-day weekend period -- shattering the previous record of $253.6 million set July 18-20 of 2008 amid the premiere of Warner’s “The Dark Knight.”
Every new film entering the market over-performed to some degree.
Confined mostly to the realm of 3D screens, “Avatar” left plenty of room in the market for Warner’s “Sherlock Holmes” to thrive, with the Robert Downey Jr. film premiering to $65.4 million -- a solid start for a film projected to gross under $60 million this weekend.
Amid a weekend chock-full of notable benchmarks, “Holmes’” opening was the second biggest ever for a film that didn’t finish No. 1 at the domestic box office, following Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow,” which had a $68.7 million start bested by “Shrek 2” back in May, 2004.
For its part, Fox’s kiddie-targeted “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” finished with $50.2 million -- that’s the fourth best start for a movie that didn’t finish atop the domestic box office. “Squeakquel" has now grossed an estimated $77.1 million since its Wednesday premiere. Fox officials stated conservative hopes in the $30 million range for the three-day period and $40 million for the five-day.
“When the third-place movie is at $50 million, it’s usually a pretty good sign that you’re going to break some records,” noted Chris Aronson, executive VP of distribution for Fox.
Meanwhile, Universal’s “It’s Complicated,” the Nancy Meyers-directed rom-com starring Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, grossed $22.1 million over the weekend, bettering estimates in the mid-teens.
Going into the weekend having already hit, as an industry, a domestic revenue benchmark of $10 billion for the first time ever, studio distribution officials expected the Christmas weekend to exceed last year’s holiday record of $200.5 million.
“But not to this level,” conceded Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco, who noted that Friday’s record $85 million single-day Christmas box office “blew my mind.”
“Friday is a great movie-going day, but it’s not like the Friday after Thanksgiving,” she added, “because people are still doing stuff with their family.”
The strong start for "Complicated" -- which included a solid “A-minus” score from influential word-of-mouth tracking firm Cinemascore -- fended off industry speculation that an $80 million Nancy Meyers film might not find the level of older, female audience members it needed amid glut of award-season and rom-com competition.
“The exit polls were great,” said Rocco, noting that the 28 percent of the audience that was male even seemed to like the movie. “I think that really bodes well for how this picture performs going forward.”
Looking ahead to the next week, which precedes the New Years Day holiday, Warner distribution president Dan Fellman predicts the domestic box office will easily beat its all-time seven-day record of $399 million.
“We have all this wonderful play time in the days ahead,” he noted.
With “Holmes” budgeted at what Fellman said was $80 million, the $65.4 million start was welcome news for producer Joel Silver, who has endured a string of recent misses, including “Speed Racer,” "RocknRolla,” “Whiteout” and “Ninja Assassin.”
“We’re thrilled for Joel,” Fellman said. “We look forward to doing more movies with him.”
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Warner will premiere the post-apocalyptic-themed “The Book of Eli,” produced by Silver and starring Denzel Washington, on Jan. 15.
While every new film entering the market enjoyed a strong start, incumbents did plenty well, too. That included the platformed expansions of several awards aspirants.
Expanding from 175 to 1,895 theaters, Paramount’s Jason Reitman-directed “Up in the Air” finished in sixth place with $11.8 million this weekend.
And expanding to 1,412 theaters from only a four locations last weekend, the Weinstein-distributed Rob Marshall musical “Nine” finished in eighth place with $5.4 million.
Meanwhile, Warner’s “The Blind Side” remained still very much in the mix six weeks after its premiere, tying “Up in the Air” for fifth place with $11.8 million.
Of course, not every film was lifted by the high water. Sony romantic comedy “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” finished in ninth place in its second weekend with $5 million. The $58 million Marc Lawrence film, which pairs Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker, has now grossed just under $16 million.
Also flat-lining, Warner-distributed Clint Eastwood film “Invictus” finished its third weekend in 10th place with $4.1 million. The $60 million film has now grossed only $23.1 million.
Here’s how the top 10 shaped up amid the biggest weekend box office of all time:
Avatar ($75.0 million)
Sherlock Holmes ($65.4 million)
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Sqeakquel ($50.2 million)
It’s Complicated ($22.1 million)
Up in the Air ($11.8 million)
The Blind Side ($11.8 million)
Princess and the Frog ($8.7 million)
Nine ($5.4 million)
Did You Hear About the Morgans? ($5.0 million)
Invictus ($4.4 million)