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'Avatar' weekend earnings climb

$77 mil gross falls short of December record

"Avatar" was just 'aving a laugh.

How else to explain Fox's underestimating the pic's opening performance on Sunday? In a rare case of a film's Sunday estimate proving too pessimistic, James Cameron's sci-fi actioner actually rang up $77 million in the U.S. and Canada during the weekend.

The final, official tally, released Monday, was more than $4 million higher than the pic's distributor initially estimated on Sunday. The opening fell just short of matching the December-record bow by "I Am Legend" in 2007.

A big East Coast snowstorm on Saturday probably robbed the pic of $2 million or so, execs said. But positive word-of-mouth throughout the frame bolstered Sunday business beyond what Fox projected.

The situation bodes well for the pricey pic's sophomore session in release during the upcoming Christmas weekend.

"Sunday was an outrageous day," Fox domestic distribution president Bruce Snyder said. "It's almost unprecedented that a picture has dropped only 3% on a Sunday, when compared with its Saturday grosses."

"Avatar" also debuted in 106 foreign territories. Its $165.5 million international tally produced a worldwide bow totaling $242.5 million.

Released in a mix of 3D and 2D venues, the film's extra-dimensional venues were particularly lucrative.

Imax said its 3D digital auditoriums sold out for the pic's entire first week. During the weekend, its 178 domestic venues registered a company-record $9.5 million, and Imax's overseas locations rang up similarly impressive sums.

"From the very beginning, James Cameron considered how the film would look and feel in Imax," Imax Filmed Entertainment president Greg Foster said.

That helped bolstered interest among moviegoers for seeing the film in the Imax format, Foster said.