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With 'Avatar,' can James Cameron break his own box-office record?

Russ Britt
MarketWatch (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — Maybe James Cameron really is the king of the world after all.

A dozen years after the director of "Titanic" made that famous exclamation at the Academy Awards — after claiming Oscar gold on top of box-office riches for the epic romance and highest-grossing movie of all time — Cameron just might top himself.

His first feature since "Titanic," the box-office smash "Avatar," could well be on pace to beat the $1.84 billion in worldwide revenue that the earlier film set during its run in late 1997 and early 1998.

Distributed by Twentieth-Century Fox, "Avatar" hit the vaunted $1 billion mark in combined domestic and overseas revenue in just 17 days, a pace believed to be unprecedented, even for "Titanic." (Fox is owned by News Corp., which also is the parent of MarketWatch, publisher of this report.)

The story of humans invading a distant planet to mine a plentiful supply of a rare mineral, "Avatar" has tongues wagging over its ground-breaking special effects. What's even more jaw-dropping for box-office watchers is the "legs," or staying power that the film has maintained. "Avatar" didn't set any records during its first weekend in theaters after debuting Dec. 18. It brought in $77 million in domestic receipts, healthy though not astounding.

But it lost less than 2 percent of that business Christmas weekend, and dipped only another 10 percent during New Year's weekend. Most films are considered to be healthy if they manage anything less than a 50 percent drop from their first weekend to their second. Dipping just more than 11 percent from the first to the third is unheard of, according to Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office analysis for Hollywood.com.

"This is just unprecedented," he said. "I had to do a double take. I thought it was a miscalculation."

Dergarabedian, however, isn't ready to hand the all-time box-office title to "Avatar" just yet. "I think second place is guaranteed. I'm not sure about first place."

"Avatar" is pretty much assured of beating the second-place holder, the 2003 release "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" from Time Warner Inc.'s New Line Cinema unit. That film made $1.13 billion over a five-month run. As of Monday, "Avatar" reached an estimated $1.02 billion in just 17 days.

But it's a big, $800 million leap from "Lord of the Rings" to "Titanic," Dergarabedian said. "Avatar" still would have to claim the worldwide box-office that 2009's second-place film, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" got during its entire three-month run. Today's films flame out much faster than they did when "Titanic" was released.

Still, the legs of "Avatar" are much stronger than any film in recent history. "Avatar" already has exceeded the $1 billion box-office tally from the most recent blockbuster of the same caliber, 2008's "The Dark Knight."

"Dark Knight" set a domestic record for opening weekends, hauling in $158 million — more than double the "Avatar" initial take — in a mere three days. But the "Dark Knight" decline was more the norm, dropping 52.5 percent in its second weekend and another 43.2 percent in its third, according to Boxofficemojo.com.

"Avatar" also enters what is traditionally a lackluster month for film releases after the Christmas rush, which could work in its favor.

Or maybe not, says Brandon Gray, president of Boxofficemojo. The Christmas season offers any film a wider audience that is more receptive to sitting in theaters.

"It certainly has a chance to do it (beat 'Titanic')," Gray said. "It probably stands the best chance of any picture since 'Titanic.' But it's too early to say because it's only played during the holidays."

One thing is certain, Gray says. While "Avatar" may beat "Titanic's" revenue record, it will be tough, and the film is unlikely to surpass "Titanic" in attendance. Ticket prices were about $3 cheaper in the late 1990s.

What's also impressive, says Hollywood.com's Dergarabedian, is that "Avatar" made it through the holiday season in first place three consecutive weekends with a number of other highly competitive titles standing in its way, such as Warner's "Sherlock Holmes" and "The Blind Side," as well as Universal's "It's Complicated" and Fox's own animated feature, "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel."

"Everyone stayed out of the way for 'Dark Knight.' But nobody got out of the way for 'Avatar,'" Dergarabedian said.

Fox, which shared in the "Titanic" box-office riches with Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures, also partnered with several other companies on "Avatar." It's unclear what the split will be for Fox; company executives weren't immediately available for comment.

It seems clear, though, there will be little concern over whether "Avatar" will recoup its costs. Prior to its release, numerous stories circulated that its budget was anywhere from $200 million to as high as $500 million.

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