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‘Avatar’ Roars Past $1B at Global Box Office

3D epic crosses $350M domestically following biggest New Year’s gross ever

If and when James Cameron decides to direct another feature film, he probably won’t be second-guessed as much as he has in the past about his production budget.

Fox’s “Avatar” this weekend became the filmmaker’s second consecutive movie to cross the $1 billion mark at the global box office, while leading the domestic market with an estimated $352.1 million over the three-day New Year’s weekend period, according to studio data.

Propelled by the biggest New Year’s Day gross ever ($25.2 million) and reaching the $1 billion mark in only 15 days, “Avatar” has become the fourth highest grossing movie globally of all time, narrowly surpassing “The Dark Knight,” while set to catch Nos. 3 and 2 on the list (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”) later this week.

That will leave Cameron’s last movie, 1997 all-time global gross champion “Titanic” ($1.8 billion) in its sight.

Even rivals are pulling for “Avatar.” “I think it’s fantastic,” said a studio distribution president who doesn’t work for Fox. “They’ve got their work cut out for them, but I’d love to see them break that record.”

For his part, Fox executive VP of distribution Chris Aronson said it was “too early to speculate” as to whether “Avatar” will ultimately climb past “Titanic,” which was released on the same December weekend in 1997 and had only grossed $152.5 million domestically through New Year’s weekend 1998.

“I will say that this is a movie that galvanizes moviegoers,” Aronson added. “This is a rare once-in-a-longtime film that gets people to go to movies who don’t ordinarily go to movies.”

Overall, the domestic box office totaled around $220 million for the weekend, according to one studio’s estimate, up 44 percent over the 2009 New Year’s three-day weekend period, which came in at $153 million.

And yes, that three-day New Year’s performance is yet another box-office record. (See also: Year-End Box Office Now Pegged at $10.6B)

Right behind “Avatar” for the second straight week was Warner’s “Sherlock Holmes,” which declined 40 percent from its premiere week to $38.4 over the three-day weekend period. Guy Ritchie’s action-driven re-imagination of the classic London detective tale, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Watson, has grossed $140.7 million in two weeks of release.

While overshadowed by "Avatar," "Holmes" has put its name on some of the all-time lists, too — it had the third-best New Year’s Day ever, for example, taking in $14.9 million Friday.

And once again finishing in third place, Fox family film “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” declined about 27 percent from its first weekend, taking in an estimated $36.6 million. Its domestic total after two and a half weeks is $157.3 million.

In fourth place, Universal romantic comedy “It’s Complicated” has quietly built momentum, dropping only 15 percent in week two to $18.7 million.

At this point, “Complicated’s” money dynamics don’t look too much different from director Nancy Meyers’ most successful cheesy rom-com effort, 2000 Mel Gibson starrer “What Women Want.” That movie got off to a better start (grossing $33 million domestically), but dropped 53 percent in week two before recovering and ultimately taking in $374.1 million worldwide.

"Complicated," which pairs Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep, with Steve Martin thrown in for good measure, has now grossed an estimated $59.1 million after two weeks.

In fifth place, Warner’s “The Blind Side” actually grew over 5 percent in its seventh weekend, taking in $12.7 million while upping its domestic total to $209.1 million.

The incendiary end-of-year performances of Warner’s “Sherlock Holmes” and “Blind Side”, juxtaposed against Fox’s “Avatar” and “Chipmunks,” has set up a bit of intrigue as to which studio won the worldwide revenue crown for the huge 2009 box-office year.

Amid a record-breaking $10.7 billion year at the North American box office, Warner won the domestic crown, with revenue of $2.13 billion (a record).

Fox, meanwhile, won the international medal, taking in $2.45 billion (yep, also a record).

On Monday, Fox is set to release its global number — Warner has already called $4.003 billion for 2009, which will be (of course) the all time global mark if Fox doesn’t usurp it.

Meanwhile, the box-office’s record-breaking heat warmed the coffers of some less fortunate films over the weekend.

Sony romantic comedy “Did You Hear About the Morgans,” for example, actually grew its audience in week three with $5.2 million, finishing in eighth place. The $58 million Marc Lawrence movie, which pairs Hugh Grant with Sarah Jessica Parker, has grossed $25.6 million to date.

Also, Warner’s Clint Eastwood-directed “Invictus” finished in ninth place, dropping less than 5 percent week-to-week with a $4.1 million performance. The $60 million South African Apartheid-themed sports movie has now grossed $25.6 million. And with Eastwood, along with stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, up for Golden Globe trophies, that ain’t too bad, considering how things started.

“I wish ‘Invictus’ had a more box office than it does now, but it had a nice weekend, and hopefully, it’ll get a boost from the Globes and the Academy nominations,” said Warner distribution president Dan Fellman.

Needing even more of a Globes boost is Weinstein-distributed Rob Marshall musical “Nine,” which finished in 10th place with an estimated $3.8 million, a 30 percent drop in week three. The $64 million film has only grossed $13.6 million to date.

See also: Year-End Box Office Now Pegged at $10.6B