‘Avatar’ Friday: $26M, on Pace for $76.5M Weekend

It’s not the mega $100M+ opening some outside Fox were predicting, but it could beat the all-time December mark

Last Updated: December 19, 2009 @ 9:49 AM

Saturday box-office update:

James Cameron’s 3D gamechanger "Avatar" opened to about $26 million Friday, not the mega, "New Moon"-huge start some industry watchers had predicted, but a start that puts the Fox film on pace to challenge the all-time December premiere mark of $77.2M established by "I Am Legend" two years ago.

Friday update:

Premiering at midnight Thursday in about 2,000 North American locations, James Cameron’s much-anticipated "Avatar" didn’t come remotely close to setting any records.

The Fox film took in $3.5 million, according to studio estimates.

This is well below record-setting midnight-opening benchmarks established earlier in the year by "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" ($26.4 million) and "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" ($22.2 million).

But the studio isn’t sweating bullets just yet. For one thing, because of Cameron’s insistence that "Avatar" play mostly on 3D screens, "Moon" and "Potter" opened in far more midnight venues, with "Moon" playing at 3,514 theaters and "Potter" at 3,003.

Meanwhile, with ‘Avatar’ not a book-based sequel with a youthful, pre-installed fanbase, Fox officials believe a better comparison is all-time December box-office opening champ "I Am Legend," which premiered to $1.7 at midnight on the same Friday two years ago before going onto a $77.2 million debut weekend.

"We are an all-audience movie with a longer running time than usual," said one Fox official, noting that Friday’s matinee performances were "outstanding."

Indeed, the real test comes on Friday, when the film opens wide on Friday at 3,453 locations — 2,038 of them with digital 3D. Opening-weekend estimates for the film span anywhere from $60 million to $100 million.

Thursday preview:

So just how big will "Avatar" be?

“We’re in uncharted territory — this is a very difficult one to handicap,” said Fox executive VP of distribution, about the domestic box office opening for James Cameron’s first film in 12 years.

Arriving amid great expectations midnight Friday in 3,453 locations, the majority of which are digital 3D (2,038), “Avatar” — for a number of reasons — is not the easiest film to track.

For one, with James Cameron preferring that his film play mostly on 3D screens, and only secondarily in 2D, its initial theater count and screen allotment aren’t that huge compared to recent mega-openers like “The Dark Knight” (4,366 locations) and “Twilight Saga: New Moon” (4,024).

"The number pales in comparison to a typical blockbuster release, which has like 8,000-9,000 screens," says one rival-studio distribution president.

On the other hand, “Avatar’s” going to be pricy. In fact, its preponderance of premium 3D ticket prices are vexing computer tracking programs designed for standard admission fees — especially with 179 IMAX locations charging up to $20 a head.

Add to that, the film is long. Its run time is two hours and 40 minutes, limiting the number of presentations exhibitors can show in a given day.

No wonder Fox officials are playing this one conservatively, predicting an a three-day debut total in the upper $50 million range. They say the film’s production budget was $237 million.

Box-office prognosticators not on the Fox lot predict the film will do well above $60 million, but opinions vary as to how much more.

“When you have HFPA members jumping up and down like that — the last time I saw that was with ‘The Lord of the Rings,” said one rival-studio distribution official, noting the four Golden Globe nominations “Avatar” received this week.

He believes the movie will open in the $90 million-$100 million range.

One thing "Avatar" won’t have to worry much about is competition.

Arriving in 2,718 locations Friday with an 8 percent score on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, romantic comedy “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” is forecast to do about $8 million this weekend.

Produced by Relativity Media and distributed by Sony, and starring Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker as an estranged couple finding connection and happiness in the federal witness protection program, the movie comes with a price tag of $50 million.

Grant’s last collaboration with “Morgans” writer/director Marc Lawrence, 2007’s “Music and Lyrics,” generated $146 million in global box office.

Weinstein, meanwhile, will add “Nine” to an awards-season juggling act that already includes Cormac McCarthy’s  “The Road” and the Tom Ford directorial debut “A Single Man.”

After garnering five Golden Globe nominations earlier in the week, “Nine” will start out in three locations — two in L.A., one in New York — with plans for expansion to over 1,000 theaters on Christmas.

“We’re being very strategic, working the awards season in a very crowded marketplace,” Weinstein distribution chief David Glasser told TheWrap.

Other limited openings include Fox Searchlight’s Jeff Bridges drama “Crazy Heart” and Apparition-distributed Emily Blunt Victorian period drama “The Young Victoria.”

As far as incumbents go, Disney’s hand-drawn “The Princess and the Frog” will more than likely finish second to “Avatar,” with various studio tracking data indicating a drop of about 30 percent from its box-office-leading $24.2 million wide expansion last weekend.

Warner’s “Blind Side,” meanwhile, should beat out “The Morgans” for third place, with predictions of another modest decline from its $15 million domestic haul last weekend.

Happily for Fox and Cameron, “Avatar” has the 3D exhibition market pretty much all to itself until March 5, when Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” arrives from Disney.