'Avatar' wins second week in a row

Sci-fi epic tops 'Sherlock,' 'Chipmunks'

Warner Bros.’ “Sherlock Holmes” couldn’t crack the case of the crowded Christmas boxoffice, outfoxed by Fox-distributed “Avatar” in its second weekend and the sci-fi actioner’s remarkable marketplace hold.

James Cameron’s motion capture-and-live action epic used positive word of mouth and premium ticket charges in 3D venues to concoct a nearly imperceptible 2% decline from week-earlier grosses, topping domestic rankings with an estimated $75 million for a 10-day cume of $212.3 million.

“Sherlock” started strongly Friday with an opening-day  record of $24.8 million in Christmas green stuff, but the Robert Downey Jr. starrer lost a bit of its boxoffice shine on each of the subsequent two days for a still-impressive $65.4 million bow.

Fox’s animated feature “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel” debuted in third with $50.2 million and a $77.1 cume since unspooling Wednesday. Universal’s romantic comedy “It’s Complicated” – starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin – debuted in fourth with a stronger-than-expected $22.1 million.

Paramount’s platforming George Clooney starrer “Up in the Air” finished fifth with $11.8 million from just 1,895 theaters, lifting cume to $24.5 million.

Another holdover hitting its soph session – Sony’s romantic comedy “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” – fell a modest 24% to $5 million in ninth place with a $15.6 million cume.

Collectively, the holiday session’s top 10 films rung up a big $260 million, or 53% more than top performers in the comparable weekend last year. Making for one of the top weekends of all time, the performance represented a fifth consecutive frame in which the industry has bested year-ago comps and puts the annual boxoffice at roughly $10 billion with one more weekend to go.

Among limited bows this frame, Sony Pictures Classics’ Terry Gilliam’s Heath Ledger-starring fantasy-adventure film “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” unspooled in four locations and grossed $129,980, or an auspicious $32,495 per venue.

Elsewhere in the specialty market, the Weinstein Co. expanded Rob Marshall’s musical “Nine” from four engagements to a modestly wide 1,412 playdates and grossed $5.5 million, or an acceptable $3,926 per theater. Cume for the pic – boasting an ensemble cast including Daniel Day-Lewis and Penelope Cruz – reached $5.9 million.

“The numbers were good for a second week, but maybe not exciting,” Weinstein spokesman David Glasser said. “Looking back, there might have been a smaller step between the four theaters and the bigger expansion that we should have taken.”

Weinstein drama “A Single Man” added 37 theaters for a total 46 and grossed $323,000, or a solid $7,014 per venue, with cume of $891,000.

Fox Searchlight’s Jeff Bridges starrer “Crazy Heart” added eight locations for a total 12 and grossed $156,000, or a sturdy $13,000 per site, with cume of $320,578.

And Apparition’s period drama “The Young Victoria” added 143 playdates for a total 163 to gross $603,866, or an acceptable $3,705 per engagement, with cume of $886,514.

The repeat win by “Avatar” may have been helped by pent-up demand, after a big East Cost snowstorm hampered some fans from making it to multiplexes over the Sam Worthington starrer’s opening frame. Buzz has been building on the pic for weeks.

“We’re getting the greatest word of mouth ever,” Fox senior vp Bert Livingston enthused.
A total 179 Imax screens contributed $8.8 million to the “Avatar” tally.

Guy Ritchie-helmed “Sherlock” co-stars Jude Law and Rachel McAdams. Drawing somewhat mixed reviews from critics, the PG-13 pic attracted audiences skewing 54% male, with 50% of patrons aged 30 and older.

Outperforming pre-release projections, the big “Sherlock” bow helped Warners become the first studio ever to ring up more than $2 billion in annual boxoffice.

“The picture just exploded,” Warners distribution president Dan Fellman said.

Rated PG and directed by Betty Thomas-directed, “Squeakuel” audiences skewed 60% female, with 70% of support coming from family patrons. The “Squeakuel” bow compared to a $44.3 million debut for last December’s franchise starter, “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” which went on to gross $217.3 million domestically.

“When you have movies that the whole family can see – that’s what the holidays are,” Fox’s Livingston said. “And then when they like it? You’re home free.”

Rated R, Nancy Meyer-helmed “Complicated” attracted audiences skewing 72% female, with a whopping 75% of patrons aged 30 or older. Prior to the bow, Uni execs had been hoping for a solid opening and sustained momentum in coming weeks, and the older audience profile should help.

“Nancy Meyer’s films have great legs,” Uni distribution maven Nikki Rocco said. “But the picture also had a lot going for it heading into the weekend. It has such a great cast, and it’s a terrific time of the year to expect adults to enjoy a film like this.”

Looking ahead, the year’s final weekend lacks any wide openers. But most of the past weekend’s debutantes should play strong through the final days of 2009, as the industry seeks to beat its year-ago boxoffice and admissions tallies.

Platforming prestige pics will seek to maintain market traction in the kudo-season limelight.

Par intends to hold tight with current playdates on “Air” and expand beyond 2,0000 engagement on Jan. 8.

“It’s a marathon not a sprint,” Par exec vp distribution Don Harris said. “The movie continues to grow its audience, and the long-term prospects of the film are really good.”