‘Avatar’ nears $500 mil mark at box office

Pic nabs worldwide total of $1.6 billion

Twentieth Century Fox’s “Avatar” remained king of the box office, but Warner Bros.’ “The Book of Eli” and Paramount’s “The Lovely Bones” also did strong business as they debuted nationwide over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

Nothing can seem to slow James Cameron’s “Avatar,” which posted a worldwide cume of $1.6 billion through Sunday, meaning that in the next two weeks it will surpass Cameron’s “Titanic” to become the highest-grossing film of all time. “Titanic” cumed $1.8 billion.

Domestically, “Avatar” declined a slim 18% to an estimated $41.3 million for a cume of $491.8 million in its fifth fame. Holiday biz should help the pic jump the $500 million mark today. Overseas, “Avatar” also dipped just 18% to an estimated $125 million for the sesh, putting the foreign total at $1.11 billion.

Denzel Washington topliner “Book of Eli,” financed and produced by Alcon Entertainment and distributed by Warners, opened to an estimated $31.6 million from 3,111 theaters to place No. 2. It’s the second straight success for Alcon after “The Blind Side,” which remains in the top 10 chart after nine weeks.

Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” was the surprise achiever of the weekend, grossing an estimated $17.1 million from 2,563 runs through Sunday (Par says that number will grow to $20 million through Monday). Film suffered in its initial limited run, but Par was able to successfully retool its marketing campaign and target young femmes for the nationwide expansion.

Opening below expectations was Lionsgate’s family pic “The Spy Next Door,” which grossed an estimated $9.7 million from 2,924 to place No. 6. The Jackie Chan-George Lopez-Billy Ray Cyrus headliner was financed and produced by Relativity Media.

“Spy Next Door” was unable to take on Fox holdover “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel,” which declined 31% to an estimated $11.5 million for a cume of $192.6 million in its fourth frame. Overseas, “Squeakquel” grossed $14.3 million for a cume of $158.5 million and worldwide total of $351.1 million, less than $10 million shy of the $360.6 million cumed worldwide by the original “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

At the specialty B.O., highlights included the Metropolitan Opera’s live, high-def broadcast of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” to 700 theaters. It grossed $2.94 million, the best number ever for the Met’s program. Overseas, 100,000 tickets were sold in 27 countries, also a record.

Scoring the best location average of the weekend was Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Last Station,” which debuted to an estimated $81,704 from three theaters for a $27,235 per location.

“Avatar” will reach the $500 million in 32 days, faster than either “Titanic” or “The Dark Knight,” the only films that have jumped $500 million. “Dark Knight” reached it in 45 days; “Titanic,” in 98.

“Titanic’ was built for comfort; ‘Avatar’ was built for speed,” Fox senior VP of domestic distribution Chris Aronson said.

Overseas, “Avatar” debuted in Italy, its last territory opening. Film grossed $14.5 million, the industry’s top bow of all time. It’s also doing record business in Japan and China.

Fox execs say “Avatar” will surpass the $1.2 billion earned by “Titanic” overseas some time this week.

“Avatar” has grossed $116 million in Imax theaters, a record for the large-format exhib.

“Book of Eli” earned Warners its best January opening ever, as well as Washington’s second-best opening after “American Gangster” ($43.6 million). The apocalyptic actioner was directed by twins Albert and Allen Hughes; Joel Silver’s Silver Pictures co-produced.

“Eli’s” aud was 65% under age 35 and 60% male. Film earned an A- from CinemaScore among younger demos, and a B+ overall, making up for mixed reviews. African-Americans also repped a substantial portion of the aud.

“Blind Side” catapulted Alcon into the limelight. That film posted a cume of $226.8 million through Sunday.

“Lovely Bones,” based on the bestselling book by Alice Sebold, played to the “Twilight” crowd, with 72% of the audience female, and almost 40% of the aud under age 20. Younger femmes gave the film an A CinemaScore, while pic earned a B CinemaScore overall.

Originally, Paramount positioned the movie as an adult, review-driven title with award ambitions. But after its opening, the studio — with Jackson’s full support — reversed course and made femmes their target. That included attaching a trailer to Summit Entertainment’s “New Moon.”

“As we screened it, we saw that young females really connected to the movie, to the spiritual aspect and the father-daughter relationship. The revised campaign was focused on telling that story,” one top Par exec said.

It’s rare that a distrib is able to regroup on a movie after a troubled launch. In its limited five-week run, “Lovely Bones” cumed less than $500,000.

Par is now focusing its awards ambition on Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” which dipped just 24% over the weekend to an estimated $5.5 million from 2,107 for a dazzling cume of $62.8 million.

Pic began its international rollout over the weekend, grossing a strong $5.7 million from 926 locations in a handful of territories, led by the U.K. with $2.1 million from 325 locations. It opened to $1.6 million from 145 locations in Australia and an impressive $975,000 in Russia. Film’s worldwide total through Sunday was $68.5 million.

Fox debuted family pic “Tooth Fairy” in six territories, where it grossed $5.3 million, led by Russia with $2 million from 352. Film opens at the domestic B.O. Friday.