Sci-fi/fantasy pic 'Avatar' unspools Friday

For 20th Century Fox, managing expectations for the opening of James Cameron’s 3D tentpole “Avatar” will be more difficult than turning the Titanic.

The sci-fi/fantasy pic, unspooling domestically at 12:01 a.m. Friday, is being billed as nothing short of an industry game-changer because of the 3D technology Cameron employed. It is his first film since “Titanic” more than a decade ago.

The industry and the media are eager to just how high “Avatar” can go in its global debut, though with the B.O. running at record levels, it’s hard to predict a specific number.

In a counter-programming maneuver designed to appeal to femmes, Sony is opening comedy “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” opposite “Avatar.” Laffer toplines Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant.

Avatar” will get the widest 3D release to date, giving it an immediate advantage from higher 3D ticket prices. This year, 3D titles have proven their worth, but most have been animated toons designed for the family aud.

In the U.S., “Avatar” opens in 3,457 runs, of which 2,032 are 3D theaters (3,124 3D screens). That includes 191 Imax runs, which are accounting for a large chunk of the presales.

Overseas, “Avatar” opens day and date on 13,737 screens in numerous territories. Of those, 3,935 are 3D, including 81 Imax runs. Ultimately, film will play on a total of 17,163 screens overseas, including 5,354 3D playdates.

In the U.S., theater traffic tends to slow the weekend before Christmas because of holiday shopping, especially among female moviegoers. However, films opening during the frame can make up ground as school vacations kick in. It’s common for titles opening at year’s end to do four or five times their opening grosses because of the lucrative Christmas-New Year’s stretch.

Internationally, traffic can also slow the weekend before Christmas, although “Avatar” will benefit from kids being out of school in many territories.

Cameron’s “Titanic,” released in 1997, remains the No. 1 grosser of all time domestically, internationally and worldwide. It grossed $600.7 million in North America, and $1.2 billion overseas for a total global haul of $1.8 billion.

Yet “Titanic” didn’t start out as a blockbuster. Opening the same December weekend as “Avatar,” “Titanic” posted a domestic debut of $28.6 million. There was so much concern about how “Titanic” would perform that Fox partnered with Paramount relatively late in the game.

While “Titanic” was fueled in particular by women, tracking shows “Avatar” appealing most to males, especially younger men. Younger women are starting to show some interest, but tracking remains soft among older females.

Word-of-mouth could certainly change the equation. Film is already getting some awards notice, with a Golden Globe nom for best picture in the drama category, and is receiving strong reviews for a fan-driven tentpole.

Avatar” is the first event pic to score a Globe nomination since Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” movies the earlier in the decade.

There’s been extensive speculation that “Avatar” is the most expensive pic ever made, costing north of $300 million to produce, although the studio has put the number in the $240 million range.

Co-financing partners have become routine in Hollywood, and Fox minimized its outlay on “Avatar” by bringing on two co-financiers, Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Partners. Also, Cameron has deferred a backend payout until certain B.O. numbers are met.

Cameron and Jon Landau’s Lightstorm Entertainment produced “Avatar,” and have been working on the technology for the film for several years.

Fox is also downplaying hopes for a big opening since “Avatar” is an original story, and blockbusters are more frequently adapted from already-familiar material. Penned by Cameron, the film revolves around an alien world that humans are trying to exploit. “Avatar” toplines Sam Worthingon, Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana.

Cameron has been personally tub-thumping “Avatar” for much of the year, meeting with both international and domestic exhibitors, and showing lengthy clips of the film.

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