'Avatar' moving up list of top grossers

James Cameron's movie eyes No. 2 spot, behind his 'Titanic'

By this time next week, James Cameron should have the two highest-grossing films in history.

The amazing feat for Cameron, his Lightstorm Entertainment production shingle and "Avatar" -- which has topped $1 billion worldwide -- follows the filmmaker's success in 1997-98 with "Titanic," the top-grossing pic ever. Fox is handling worldwide distribution on "Avatar" after partnering with Paramount for the release of "Titanic."

Like that film, "Avatar" is ringing up far more foreign coin than in the U.S. and Canada. In fact, the pricey pic only now is poised to crack the list of top 10 all-time domestic grossers.

"It doesn't matter where we are domestically," said Jon Landau, Cameron's producing partner at Lightstorm. "The movie business has become an international business. When you release movies, you have to figure out whether the movies will play internationally."

Landau deflected a question about how high "Avatar" could fly by recalling the comment of one-time Fox distribution exec Tom Sherak, now president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "It depends how many people go to see it," Landau deadpanned.

Meanwhile, even execs at rival studios seem to be getting a kick out of the mind-bending performance of Fox's motion-capture/live-action blockbuster, and Landau said he knows why.

"It shows the potential of the industry," he said. "It shows people want to go to the movies."

The eventual rise of "Avatar" to the silver-medal position among all-time global grosses will see the Dec. 18 opener blow past two pics still ahead in the pecking order so far. Coming off the weekend with $1 billion and counting, "Avatar" in coming days will rise above 2006's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" ($1.07 billion) and then 2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" ($1.12 billion).

"It's not a likelihood -- it's just a question of when," mused one industryite.

On the other hand, few would suggest "Avatar" has any chance of outdistancing "Titanic," which registered $1.84 billion during the course of its months-long theatrical cruise.

Still, "Avatar" any day now should replace "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" ($380.3 million) as the 10th-highest-grossing film in domestic boxoffice history. Through Sunday, the film had socked away $352.1 million in U.S. and Canadian coin.

The 2 1/2-hour epic has fetched far more in foreign lucre at an incredible $676.9 million, with only China and Italy yet to bow -- Monday and Jan. 15, respectively. Action films tend to outperform overseas, but the outsized international tally for "Avatar" also reflects the growing opportunity for film releasing worldwide.

"There are markets in the international marketplace that are just emerging as cinematic forces," Landau said. "Take Russia, for example. Russia has more screens now than they did six months ago, and 'Avatar' is able to capitalize on that. Moviegoers are craving films that they didn't get to see before, to go to the movie theater and escape. Cinemas just didn't exist in many of their hometowns 10 years ago."
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