Warner Bros. sets box office record with Fox, 'Avatar' close behind

With a week to go, Warner Bros. declared Monday it will set a new industry record in reaching $3.99 billion in worldwide ticket sales in 2009.

Or will it? Twentieth Century Fox could match that number, or even best it, on the strength of James Cameron’s “Avatar” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.” While 2009 officially ends on Thursday, 2009 box office receipts will include grosses from this weekend.

Warners projections for the year are $2.13 billion in domestic revs — by far the best of any studio — and $1.86 billion in international ticket sales.

Fox insiders say the studio will likely reach $1.64 billion in domestic revs, including $261 million in Fox Searchlight grosses. Overseas, the studio expects to come in with $2.43 billion in ticket sales. Through Sunday, foreign receipts totaled $2.28 billion, setting an industry record.

If those numbers hold, Fox’s 2009 grosses will reach $4.07 billion. Warners could easily jump the $4 billion mark as well.

Warners said it is safe in claiming the $3.99 billion record, saying Fox numbers aren’t comparable since they include grosses from Searchlight titles that are distributed by big Fox.

Whichever studio comes out on top for the year, the fact that two majors are so close to the $4 billion mark for the first time ever underscores what a tremendous year it has been for the global box office, even though other sectors (such as home entertainment) have not been so prosperous.

The previous worldwide best was the $3.66 billion grossed by Warners’ titles in 2007, led by “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” ($938.2 million).

Claiming marketshare dominance is a favorite pastime in Hollywood, although some studios do it more than others. (Fox co-chairs Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos regularly point out that marketshare has nothing to do with profitability).

This time, Warner took the extra step of declaring victory a few days early. “We’re really proud of this achievement, and it was only possible through the combined efforts of an incredibly talented group of people, including everyone involved with the creation, production, marketing and distribution of more than two dozen films worldwide over the last 12 months,” Warner Bros. Pictures Group prexy Jeff Robinov said.

Warners has several titles in the market, included newcomer “Sherlock Holmes,” which debuted to $62.5 million over Christmas weekend at the domestic B.O. On Sunday, Warners estimated “Sherlock’s” opening at $65.4 million, but the film fell more than expected on Sunday.

Other Warner titles currently on the marquee include “The Blind Side” and “Invictus.”

Fox has a big advantage in “Avatar,” which once again did more biz than estimated on Sunday. Final figures coming in on Monday showed the 3D sci-fi fantasy grossing $75.7 million for the weekend, instead of $75 million. Picture enjoyed the strongest second weekend ever the domestic B.O., grossing nearly as much as it made in its opening frame, $77 million.

Overseas, “Avatar” grossed another $145 million for a foreign total of $405 million and worldwide haul of more than $617 million.

The top worldwide grosser of 2009 was Warners’ “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” with $934 million. The film grossed $302 million domestically, bested only by Paramount’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which earned $402 million.

Warners saw blockbuster success from two sleeper hits: “The Hangover” and, more recently, “The Blind Side.”

Hangover” grossed $277.2 million domestically and $190 million overseas to become the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time. Toplining Sandra Bullock, “Blind Side” has grossed $185 million domestically.

Warners’ 2009 overseas tally was paced by “Half-Blood Prince,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” ($201 million for the 2008 holdover, which Par distributed domestically) and “Hangover.”

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