Cameron pic takes in over $232.2 mil worldwide

Twentieth Century Fox and James Cameron’s 3D sci-fi epic “Avatar” posted a worldwide bow of $232.2 million, led by a very merry $159.2 million overseas and a strong $73 million domestically. Global launch was the largest ever for a nonsequel and the sixth biggest international launch overall.

At this point, it’s impossible to gauge the film’s eventual box office, because there were so many factors affecting its opening, including its domestic battle with an unexpected enemy: Mother Nature, as a major blizzard hit the East Coast over the weekend, paralyzing some cities, and slowing down others.

Fox execs can take comfort from the film’s glowing reviews and, more importantly, glowing exit polls among all demos, including an A from CinemaScore. Of the U.S. audience, 62% were over age 25, while moviegoers under 25 rated the film even higher, giving the movie an A+. As expected, the pic skewed male at 57%.

Also throwing off long-term projections is the fact that auds, particularly females, can be distracted with holiday shopping and parties the weekend before Christmas. Successful films bowing at year’s end can do four and five times their opening weekend gross because of the lucrative Christmas-New Year’s stretch vs. the usual multiple of three. So the film’s big tests will come in the next few weeks.

Given the long buildup to the “Avatar” bow, Fox has been working hard to manage expectations. With pic one of the most expensive productions ever, and Cameron’s first feature since the record-shattering “Titanic,” some were expecting a gargantuan bow.

Also adding to the anticipation is the fact that the 3D technology was touted as revolutionary. But the movie’s long running time (2 hours, 41 minutes) and the fact that it’s a nonfranchise title are mitigating factors.

Studio insiders confirm that “Avatar” cost $310 million to produce, but that its number goes down to $280 million when factoring in production tax credits. Fox has two co-financing partners, Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners. The marketing budget is also sizable.

It is a movie unto itself. Originality always has the greatest risk, but it also has the greatest upside. And we couldn’t have dreamed of a better start,” Fox co-chair/CEO Tom Rothman said. “This film, in particular, was made to go the distance.”

On the strength of “Avatar,” weekend was up 51% over the same weekend last year, when “Yes Man” and “Seven Pounds” opened to $18.3 million and $15 million, respectively.

News wasn’t so bright for the only new wide release going up against “Avatar,” Sony’s Hugh Grant-Sarah Jessica Parker topliner “Did You Heart About the Morgans?” Romantic comedy grossed $7 million from 2,718 theaters to place No. 4 after “Avatar,” Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” ($12.2 million) and Warner Bros.’ “The Blind Side” ($10 million).

At the specialty box office, the Weinstein Co.’s Rob Marshall-directed musical “Nine” dazzled with the best per-location average of the weekend at $71,733.

Avatar” is Cameron’s first feature since “Titanic,” released on the same weekend in December 1997 and still the No. 1 grosser of all time worldwide at $1.8 billion (including $1.2 billion internationally). “Titanic” opened to just $28 million.

Cameron waited so long to make his next film so that technology could catch up with his vision for “Avatar,” the first all-audience 3D tentpole and the widest 3D release to date, both domestically and overseas. Most 3D movies thus far have been animated titles.

On the top 10 list of all-time foreign openers, “Avatar” landed between “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” ($165.4 million) and “The Da Vinci Code” ($155 million).

Opening at No. 1 in 106 markets, “Avatar” played on 14,464 screens overseas. Of those, 3,671 were 3D screens, supplying a whopping 56% of the entire gross.

Avatar” has yet to roll out in several major markets, including Japan and China.

Fox co-prexy of international distribution Paul Hanneman said “Avatar” did slightly better than Sony’s “2012″ on a market-by-market basis; “2012,” opening last month, has grossed $574.1 million to date internationally.

This was a hard weekend, with massive snow in Paris and other parts of Europe. In other places, people were Christmas shopping instead of going to the movies. Yet the numbers were amazing, and the response is unbelievable,” Hanneman said.

Hanneman said the film played to all quadrants as well as to families, although exact demo breakdowns weren’t available.

Avatar’s” foreign run was led by Russia at $21 million from 1,326 playdates, the second highest-opening ever behind “Ice Age 3. That was followed by France with $19 million, the U.K. with $14.2 million, Germany with $13.2 million, Australia with $11.3 million and South Korea at $10.8 million.

Out of the 3,452 domestic theaters, 2,023 locations showed the film in 3D. That included roughly 180 Imax theaters that saw record-breaking business. Imax numbers will be released Monday morning.

As a group, the 3D locations repped 59% of the entire theater count and contributed 71% of the gross. Domestically, “Avatar” scored the second-best launch on record for a film debuting in December.

No. 1 December opening was scored by Warner Bros. Will Smith starrer “I Am Legend” ($77.2 million). “Avatar” narrowly bested the $72.6 million posted by Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in its first weekend. That pic grossed $377 million domestically, more than five times its opening.

People will be talking about this movie for years to come, and it is one of the rare occurrences when critics are completely in tune with the consumer,” Fox senior VP of domestic distribution Chris Aronson said.

This year, a number of films have enjoyed unusually strong legs based on word of mouth, including “The Blind Side,” “Paranormal Activity” and “Taken.”

It’s difficult to ascertain exactly how much the opening gross was hurt by the blizzard.

Avatar” dropped 5% from Friday to Saturday, reflecting the impact of the storm in the Northeast. Theater traffic came to a standstill in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., where ticket sales tumbled 86% and 75%, respectively, from Friday to Saturday. They declined a steep 57% in Philadelphia and 18% in New York.

Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” faced a difficult second sesh in North America, falling 52% to an estimated $4.2 million for a cume of $15.4 million.

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