'Avatar' three-peats atop boxoffice

James Cameron's film ups domestic haul to $352.1 million

Out with the old and in with the ... really lucrative old.

James Cameron's "Avatar" closed out boxoffice year 2009 and began calendar 2010 by three-peating atop the domestic rankings. The Fox-distributed sci-fi actioner rang up an estimated $68.3 million during the weekend, yielding a heady 17-day cume of $352.1 million.

With "Avatar" taking in $133.5 million in foreign coin during the weekend for a $670.2 million international cume, the famously pricey pic pushed worldwide cume to a mind-bending $1.02 billion. That puts "Avatar" at No. 4 among the top global grossers of all time, behind Cameron's "Titanic" ($1.84 billion), the Peter Jackson three-quel "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" ($1.12 billion) and Gore Verbinski's "The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" ($1.07 billion)."

The pic's rarified weekend performance in the U.S. and Canada represented the biggest third-frame tally for any domestic release in history, surpassing the $45 million third session marked by "Spider-Man" in May 2002.

Meantime, with "Avatar" now firmly into profitable territory, it's worth recalling that its record trajectory was hardly a given prior to the pic's hitting theaters, with Fox paring down risk on the groundbreaking motion-capture/live-action project by taking on a pair of equity partners. Profit participants in "Avatar" -- whose production costs totaled a reported $300 million -- include Fox, Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners.

Studio execs are giddy about the ways things have turned out.

"People are talking about this movie and going back again and again," Fox senior vp domestic distribution Bert Livingston said.

There are already broad expectations of an "Avatar" sequel, though studio insiders insist nothing yet has been discussed.

Elsewhere during the ebullient New Year's weekend, most other holdovers displayed remarkable market traction.

Warner Bros.' Robert Downey Jr. starrer "Sherlock Holmes" -- another seeming franchise-starter -- fell just 38% in its second frame to repeat as domestic bridesmaid with a $38.4 million. Fox's family comedy "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," which unspooled the Wednesday before Christmas, again finished third in a 25% dip to $36.6 million.

"Sherlock" cume reached $140.7 million; the Chipmunks sit at $157.3 million. Another sophomore-session holdover -- Universal's romantic comedy "It's Complicated" -- dropped a skimpy 15% to $18.7 million in fourth place, with a $59.1 million cume.

A pair of pics still midstride in ongoing platform campaigns also fetched tidy sums.

Paramount's George Clooney starrer "Up in the Air" registered $11.4 million from just 1,895 engagements, with the dramedy grabbing sixth place on the frame for a $45 million cume. And Sony the Weinstein Co.'s musical "Nine" took in $4.3 million from 1,412 for a ninth-place session and $14 million cume.

In other notable specialty-film action, Fox Searchlight's Jeff Bridges starrer "Crazy Heart" held steady in 12 locations, grossing $235,554, or a pleasing $19,630 per site, with cume of $716,335.

And Sony Pictures Classics' Heath Ledger-starring adventure fantasy "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" maintained four theaters in grossing $130,817, or an enviable $32,704 per venue. The Terry Gilliam-helmed film pushed its cume to $348,677.

Looking ahead to the first frame of the 2010 boxoffice year, three wide openers are set to hit multiplexes: Dimension Films' Michael Cera-toplined comedy "Youth in Revolt"; Uni's romantic comedy "Leap Year," pairing Amy Adams and Matthew Goode; and Lionsgate's futuristic vampire actioner "Daybreakers," starring Willem Dafoe and Ethan Hawke. Also on Friday, Par plans to pump "Air" beyond 2,000 playdates for the first time.
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