James Cameron pic takes in $77 million

The film business is just $98 million short of hitting $10 billion in ticket sales for the first time ever at the domestic B.O., capping a surprisingly buoyant year.

Through Sunday, revenues for the year (using Jan. 2 as a starting date) were $9.9 billion, according to Rentrak. Ticket sales should cross $10 billion this weekend or possibly earlier.

Twentieth Century Fox’s “Avatar” beat all forecasting models with an unprecedented hold from Saturday to Sunday, both domestically and overseas, indicating that James Cameron’s 3D sci-fi fantasy is already benefiting from tremendous word-of-mouth.

Film’s worldwide bow was $242.5 million, the best ever for a nonsequel. Domestic haul was $77 million vs. the $73 million initially projected on Sunday; foreign total was $165.5 million, compared to Sunday’s estimate of $159.2 million.

“Avatar” is expected to remain a heavyweight, but other big titles enter the market on Christmas Day, including Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel” and Warner Bros.’ “Sherlock Holmes.” Paramount’s “Up in the Air” expands nationwide Wednesday.

Domestically, “Avatar” dropped just 3% from Saturday to Sunday.

“I don’t ever remember seeing this before,” said Fox president of domestic distribution Bruce Snyder.

On Friday and Saturday, “Avatar’s” bow was hampered by a powerful blizzard that swept the East Coast, paralyzing cities including Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia. The storm hit New York on Saturday night.

Moviegoers making up for lost time due to the blizzard could have accounted for some of the flurry of Sunday biz, but “Avatar’s” slim decline was historic. The closest recent comparison was “Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” which dropped 10% on opening weekend. Films usually fall some 20% to 50% from Friday to Saturday, depending on the genre and other factors.

Among other pics with low drops, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was notable as it fell 15% from Saturday to Sunday opening on the same weekend in 2003.

“Avatar” did better than estimated overseas, where it was up from Saturday to Sunday by 3% — even more unusual.

With its estimated international total of $165.5 million, Cameron’s pic scored the fifth best opening of all time internationally, narrowly beating the $165.4 million opening of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

Domestically, “Avatar” came in just behind Warner Bros.’ Will Smith starrer “I Am Legend,” record-holder for the best December opening at $77.2 million.

“Avatar,” the widest 3D release to date, opened in 3,452 theaters, of which 2,023 were 3D runs.

Pic brought record-breaking results for Imax theaters, whose grosses were included in the overall opening number.

Domestically, 178 Imax theaters pulled in a record-breaking $9.5 million. Its theaters repped 18 of the 20 top-grossing locations domestically. Haul of $9.5 million accounted for 13% of the film’s total opening number, although Imax locations repped just 3% of the total screen count. They operated at full capacity and added 3 and 6 a.m. shows. Imax 3D tickets are priced in the $16-$18 range.

Overseas, 58 Imax theaters generated $4.1 million in ticket sales for a worldwide total of $13.6 million, besting the previous record of $11.3 million over the summer for Paramount’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

“Avatar” placed No. 1 in all 65 markets in which it opened. Major markets where the film has yet to roll out include Japan and China.

Russia led with an estimated $20.8 million, followed by $20.3 million in France and $14.1 million in the U.K.

Film scored Fox its biggest opening ever in a number of countries, including South Korea ($11.4 million), Spain ($10.9 million) and India ($4.7 million).

Fox needs “Avatar” to have a long and lucrative run: Pic cost $310 million to produce, although tax credits bring that number down to $280 million. Studio likely spent $100 million-$150 million to market the tentpole. Fox co-financed with Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners.

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