'Avatar' earns $73 million in opening

James Cameron film falls short of industry projections

Update: 'Avatar' weekend earnings climb

Mother Nature worked her own special effects on "Avatar" during the weekend as a big East Coast snowstorm kept James Cameron's sci-fi actioner from piling its opening boxoffice as high as expected.

But Fox still managed to shovel a blizzard's worth of business with the 3D release, which topped domestic rankings with an estimated $73 million through Sunday. The motion capture-and-live action hybrid bowed simultaneously in 106 international territories, where it rung up $159.2 million in foreign coin for a worldwide debut totaling $232.2 million.

The weekend's sole other wide opener -- Sony's romantic comedy "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" starring Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker -- fetched $7 million in fourth place. Disney's animated feature "The Princess and the Frog" fell 50% from its week-earlier wide debut to $12.2 million in second place with a $44.8 cume, while Warner Bros.' Clint Eastwood-directed "Invictus" dropped 52% in its sophomore session to $4.2 million in sixth place with a $15.8 million cume.

Collectively, the weekend's top 10 films registered $122.2 million, or 58% more than top performers in the same frame last year, according to Nielsen EDI. That makes four straight weekends in which the industry has outpaced year-earlier comparisons.

In a limited bow, Fox Searchlight unspooled Jeff Bridges starrer "Crazy Heart" in two New York locations and two in L.A. to gross $84,204, or an auspicious $21,051 per site. "Heart" will add solo runs in four additional markets Friday.

The Weinstein Co. opened Rob Marshall's musical "Nine" in four theaters and grossed $246,933. That represented a whopping $61,733 per venue ahead the pic's scheduled expansion into wide release next weekend.

Apparition debuted period drama "Young Victoria" with 20 playdates in eight U.S. markets and grossed $148,254, or a pleasing $7,413 per engagement.

Elsewhere in the specialty market, Sony Pictures Classics added 24 locations for a total of 30 for Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces" as the Penelope Cruz starrer grossed $205,281, or a solid $6,843 per site. "Broken" cume climbed to $847,976.

Freestyle Releasing's drama "Me and Orson Welles" added 68 theaters for a total 132 to gross $170,068, or a thin $1,288 per venue, with cume of $563,569.

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Drawing largely positive reviews from film critics, "Avatar" totes a negative cost of $300 million or more, according to unofficial estimates. Fox and Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment worked for the past few years with Giant Studios in west L.A. on motion-capture animation for the groundbreaking production and used WETA Digital in New Zealand for final rendering and other digital work.

Fox brought in a pair of co-financing partners on "Avatar" as the production costs began to pile up. The studio declined to disclose how pic equity is split among the three participants -- Fox, Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners.

Cameron & Co. began tubthumping the movie last summer, introducing screenings of extended footing at Cinema Expo in Amsterdam and Comic-Con in San Diego. But early Internet-driven sentiment was skeptical until more recent industry screenings of the entire film met with enthusiastic receptions, prompting notable pre-release interest.

Once in theaters, "Avatar" -- Cameron's first dramatic feature in 12 years -- proved less front-loaded than the typical fan-fueled release. That could be a hopeful sign, as a broader base of support could translate into a leggier theatrical run over coming weekends.

And the snow will melt eventually.

"Avatar" posted $27 million of its weekend haul Friday, including solid-but-unspectacular $3.5 million in boxoffice from more than 2,000 mostly 3D midnight performances. Then the snowstorms hit in major Eastern markets, yielding a disappointing Saturday tally of $25.7 million; Fox penciled it a $20.3 million estimate for Sunday.

Still, the weekend performance for "Avatar" fell just short record territory for the month. The biggest-ever December opening was with 2007's "I Am Legend" at $77.2 million.

Rated PG-13, "Avatar" drew audiences comprised 57% of males, with 62% of patrons age 25 or older.

"That bodes extremely well for us," Fox senior vp distribution Chris Aronson said. "With 62% of the audience being older, that bodes well for playability. The older audience has holiday distractions right now, but once they're freed, they will be flowing to this movie."

"Avatar" boasted about 3,000 3D screens and an equal number of 2D screens while playing in a total 3,452 theaters. Grosses for 3D screens were fattened by premium ticket charges, with Imax's 179 digital 3D screens doing particularly well.

"Basically, every one of our seats was sold out through the weekend and in many cases for the next week," Imax Film Entertainment president Greg Foster said. "We shattered every record we have."

Rated PG-13, "Morgans" skewed 60% female, with 54% of patrons age 30 or older.

"The opening was a little soft, with all the bad weather," Sony distribution president Rory Bruer said.

Looking ahead to next weekend, the Christmas holiday falling Friday will hamper family pics a bit but shouldn't hurt two adult-targeting wide openers: Universal's romantic comedy "It's Complicated" -- starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin -- and Warners' actioner "Sherlock Holmes," with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Fox unspools animated sequel "Alvin and the Chipmunk: The Squeakquel" on Wednesday to get ahead of the holiday hubbub.