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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Titanic" director James Cameron's "Avatar," a 3-D extravaganza hyped as a giant leap in cinematic prowess, ruled the worldwide box office during its first weekend even as North American sales were hit by an enormous snow storm, its distributor said on Sunday.
The film -- one of the most expensive ever made -- earned an estimated $232.2 million from North America and 106 foreign markets, according to News Corp's 20th Century Fox, provisionally the ninth-biggest opening of all time.
Moviegoers in the United States and Canada chipped in $73 million, far short of enthusiastic forecasts in the $85 million range. Top contributors to the $159.2 million foreign total included Russia ($21 million), France ($19 million) and the U.K. ($14.2 million).
"Avatar" edged ahead of 2006's "The Da Vinci Code" ($232.1 million) among worldwide openings, while the disaster picture "2012" slipped to No. 11 with $230.5 million. If the number is confirmed when final data are issued on Monday, "Avatar" will set a new opening record for a nonsequel.
The record for a worldwide opening is $394 million, set in July by "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." The "Avatar" opening also fell far short of the $275 million opening for "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" last month.
"Avatar" garnered almost as much attention for its reported budget of at least $300 million as for its eco-friendly tale of a disabled ex-Marine sent from Earth to infiltrate an alien race of 10-foot (3 meter)-tall blue people in order to save his polluted planet. Inter-species romance ensues between computerized characters representing actors Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana.
It marks Cameron's first dramatic feature since 1997's "Titanic," the biggest film of all time before accounting for inflation. He spent the intervening years waiting for moviemaking technology to catch up with his vision for the follow-up. Production took two years.
His new film won breathless reviews from critics. "You've never experienced anything like it, and neither has anyone else," said the Los Angeles Times.
Despite the buzz, the weekend haul ranks as merely the sixth-biggest of the year in the United States and Canada. The 2009 record was set last month by "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," with $143 million. The all-time record of $158 million was set last year by "The Dark Knight."
A blizzard along the East Coast crippled business for all movies. Holiday-shopping distractions also had an impact. Fox said "Avatar" sales in New York fell 18 percent on Saturday from the previous day. The drop was 86 percent in Baltimore and 75 percent in Washington DC. But the studio hoped business would rebound as the weather improved.
Fox distribution president Chris Aronson dismissed the industry forecasts, saying the studio had been hoping for an opening in the mid-$60 million range. He said the 163-minute running time reduced the number of daily screenings.
On the other hand, ticket sales for "Avatar" were inflated by premium pricing for screenings in venues equipped with 3-D technology. Such venues accounted for 59 percent of the total cinema count and 71 percent of sales, Fox said.
Exit polling for the film was strong across the board, and he was surprised that 62 percent of moviegoers were aged over 25. Men accounted for 57 percent of the audience.
The big issues are whether Fox will make money on the picture, and how it will fare at the Academy Awards. Media analyst Rich Greenfield of Pali Capital last week upgraded News Corp to hold from sell, saying Fox was unlikely to lose "a massive amount of money" on the film.
The rough rule-of-thumb is that the studio and theaters split the gross evenly. Fox is also on the hook for worldwide marketing costs of $150 million, and must share some profits with Cameron. DVD sales will add to the windfall, although critics say "Avatar" is best appreciated in a 3-D theater environment.
As for the Oscars, for which nominations will be announced on February 2, the film is making some early headway, picking up key Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; editing by Anthony Boadle