HuffPost Weekend Box Office in Review: Avatar Dominates Record-Breaking Weekend

So many notable records were notched this weekend that I'm not sure where to begin. So, for the sake of expediency, let's just do a list for now.

The biggest three-day weekend of all-time, at $263.9 million.
Avatar ($75.5 million) - Biggest second weekend of all time. Smallest dip (-1.8%) for any movie opening over $42 million. Tenth-smallest drop for any super-wide release. Biggest Christmas weekend ever. Tenth-fastest to $200 million.
Sherlock Holmes ($62.3 million) - Biggest Christmas opening-weekend ever. Fifth-biggest December opening weekend ever. Second-largest opening weekend not to be number 01 (behind The Day After Tomorrow's $68 million Memorial Day launch).
Alvin and the Chipmunks 2: The Squeakuel ($48.8 million) - Eighth-biggest December opening weekend. Fourth-biggest opening weekend not to be number 01.

OK, now that we have that out of the way, let's discuss the nitty-gritty. Coming off shockingly consistent weekday numbers ($16 million each day on Mon-Wed, then $11 million for Christmas Eve), James Cameron's Avatar easily took the box office crown for the second weekend in a row. Dropping an almost insignificant 1.8%, the sci-fi epic has now amassed $212 million in ten days. Oh, and its already pulled in $623 million in global ticket sales. So, in just ten days, Avatar is pretty much in the black in regards to costs ($240 million) and marketing ($150 million). Say what you will about the higher prices of 3D and IMAX tickets, but the consistent performance of Avatar is downright astonishing. The Lord of the Rings films didn't have holds anywhere near this good. Spider-Man dropped 38% in its second weekend. Twister dropped 9.7% in its second weekend with absolutely no competition. Heck, even The Sixth Sense dropped a whole 3.6% in its second three-day run. In my lifetime, for numbers of this relative scale, I've only seen this once before. Yes, James Cameron's Titanic actually increased its opening weekend by 23% from $28 million to $35 million over Christmas weekend 1997. I hesitate to even think that James Cameron may have done the impossible twice in a row, but the ground-level sentiment feels the same as it did twelve years ago. Everyone in every demographic is telling everyone to see it, and everyone seems to be relatively satisfied. And, since we're dealing with twelve years of inflated numbers, Avatar only has to be an unstoppable force for about six weeks, as opposed to Titanic's four-month reign of terror. George Lucas famously said that he knew Star Wars's reign at the top of the domestic box office was toast at the end of Titanic's third weekend. If Avatar pulls in anything resembling the $135 million that it grossed over the last seven days in the last week of the year, we'll know that the domestic record may be in serious peril (Titanic's third weekend drop just 6%). Of course, adjusted for inflation, Titanic's $600 million domestic total would equal $921 million today. But we'll cross that bridge if we need to.

How do you gross $62 million over your opening weekend and still end up with no respect? When you end up in the shadow of a cultural phenomenon, that's how. Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (which was either a reinvention or a return to the literary roots, depending on which Doyle stories you have on your bookcase) knocked out the biggest Christmas opening of all time, but it still was only good enough for second place. The Robert Downey Jr/Jude Law vehicle was hurt both by the Avatar media firestorm, and by the misfortune of being the third major movie of note by the time Christmas day came around. Since Avatar had guaranteed access to the bigger screens and Alvin and the Chipmunks 2 had the benefit of a Wednesday opening (and $18.8 million opening day), Sherlock Holmes had to settle for smaller auditoriums in many of its theaters. Anecdotal evidence has abounded of this would-be franchise starter playing in shockingly small auditoriums. My parents actually found their first showtime of choice being sold out, and they too reported a smaller-than-expected theater (for the record, neither of them liked the movie). Still, $62 million is nothing to complain about (it's the ninth-biggest opening of the year), and a $175 million-$200 million total is likely barring a complete collapse due to mediocre word of mouth (its 2.5x weekend multiplier was actually pretty low for this time of year). We can expect to see a sequel to this one in the next two or three years, depending on Downey Jr's Iron Man/Avengers schedule.

Third place embarrassingly went to Alvin and the Chipmunks 2. Unlike other kid-centric adaptations whose sequels could only hold onto a portion (Scooby Doo: Monster's Unleashed) or a fraction (The Flintstones In Viva Rock Vegas) of their originals' box office take, the Fox 'secret weapon' (a cheap profit machine in case Avatar flopped) grossed $48.8 million over the Fri-Sun portion, with a Wed-Sun total of $75.5 million. The prior film opened with $46 million the weekend before Christmas in 2007 (against I Am Legend's record $77.25 million December opening) and inexplicably made it to $217 million. Fox's other sequel that no one demanded, Night at the Museum: Battle For the Smithsonian ended up with 70% of the original's domestic take. A similar path would give Alvin and the Chipmunks 2 about $153 million. But with $75 million already in the bank, $200 million is a strong possibility unless America wises up and takes their kids to The Princess and the Frog instead.

Fourth place went to It's Complicated, which pulled in $22.1 million. This is Meryl Streep's third-consecutive wide-release opening of over $20 million, and her seventh such opening of her career. In a rare double-whammy, our most respected actress is now officially the most bankable female star in Hollywood, all at the tender age of... oh who cares how old she is. George Clooney's Up in the Air debuted in wide release with $11.7 million, which is right in the $11-14 million safe zone for George Clooney star vehicles not involving Vegas capers, giant storms, caped crusaders, or an assist from Brad Pitt and the Coen brothers. The Oscar front-runner has now grossed just under its $25 million budget. The Blind Side increased by 17% over the weekend, grossing an amazing $11.7 million in its sixth weekend. The film has now amassed $184 million, and is now the biggest-grossing 'based on a true story' movie of all time, give or take the alleged non-fiction nature of The Passion of the Christ. Barring a backlash over the 'gosh it's a big-studio drama that people just like' nature of the film (to say nothing over the absurd comparisons with Sandra Bullock's character and Sarah Palin), I fully expect a Best Picture Oscar nomination to go along with Bullock's Best Actress nod.

Well, if you want to discuss movies that are likely Best Picture nominees despite terrible reviews and box office failure, let's talk Rob Marshall's Nine. Coming in at number... uh, eight (drat!), the musical sensation that's earning 40% on Rotten Tomatoes pulled in $5.5 million over its three-day wide debut. Disney must be absolutely kicking themselves over hiring this guy to direct the next Pirates of the Caribbean film (will all the swashbuckling be in Jack Sparrow's head?), as opposed to giving it to someone competent like Kathryn Bigelow or Neill Blomkamp. I have no idea which songs were from the original show and which were made up for the movie, but the film version has worse, more on-the-nose musical lyrics than Repo: A Genetic Opera. It will be interesting to see if Oscar can resist the allure of the many attractive stars, or whether Harvey Weinstein can use what's left of his capital to pull nominations for a movie that no one likes.

The Princess and the Frog dropped a sad 26%, and it now sits at just $63.6 million. Come on, people... there's no excuse for not checking this one out. I don't know whether the blame lies with the platform release (interest peaked during Disney's 2-theater Thanksgiving engagement), the overtly female nature of the story (combined with the heavy female drawing power of Avatar and Sherlock Holmes) or, dare I say it, its African-American characters and locale, but something went a little wrong for this sure-fire smash. Below that are a slew of limited releases (A Serious Man, An Education, The Young Victoria, The Road, etc) that are stuck in neutral, hoping and praying for Oscar glory to help them dig out of their ruts. The only limited opening was Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which pulled in $124,743 on four screens.

That's all for this weekend. Join us next weekend for the thrilling opening weekend of... nothing. Expect the rankings to stay relatively similar, and the big question is whether Avatar can race to the $300 million mark by year's end. For more, including the year's worst films, a quick look back at the decade in film, and what happened at Christmas last year, go to Mendelson's Memos.

Scott Mendelson