LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The 3-D extravaganza "Avatar" ruled the worldwide box office for a second weekend on Sunday, while the latest exploits of Alvin and the Chipmunks and Sherlock Holmes helped set a North American sales record.
"Avatar," an eco-friendly morality tale from "Titanic" writer/director James Cameron, earned $220 million in North America and 108 foreign markets, taking its 10-day haul to $617.3 million.
Distributor 20th Century Fox, a unit of News Corp, said the film was No. 1 everywhere except in India where it followed a local movie. It opens in China on January 2 and Italy on January 15.
British director Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes," starring Robert Downey Jr. as the Victorian sleuth, opened to $91.4 million in North America and 17 foreign markets. The Warner Bros. release opened at No. 2 in the United States and Canada with a better-than-expected $65.4 million.
Family audiences spent $86.7 million on Fox's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," a follow-up to the cartoon characters' 2007 worldwide smash. In North America, the film ranked No. 3 for the weekend with $50.2 million, also exceeding studio forecasts. Thanks to an early start on Wednesday, its tally stands at $77.1 million, taking its worldwide haul to $113.6 million.
Fox said "Alvin" opened in 42 markets, and was No. 2 in at least 20 of them.
The three films helped set a new weekend sales record in North America, according to tracking firm Hollywood.com Box Office. The top 12 releases grossed $278 million, smashing the mark of $261 million set in July 2008 when "The Dark Knight" was the top film, it said.
The firm also forecast record sales of $10.5 billion this year, up 9 percent from 2008. Even with higher ticket prices, it predicted the number of tickets sold would rise almost 5 percent from last year to 1.4 billion -- the highest tally since 2006.
The other major new release in North America, "It's Complicated," opened at No. 4 with a solid $22.1 million. The Universal Pictures comedy, starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, also pulled in $5.4 million from 11 foreign markets. Spain chipped in $2.1 million.
The only sour note was struck by the Weinstein Co. musical "Nine," which earned just $5.5 million in its first weekend of wide release, good enough for only No. 8. The closely held studio said the film struggled to connect with moviegoers in the heartland, but did better in the big cities.
"Avatar" has earned $212.3 million after 10 days of release across the United States and Canada. The film enjoyed a surprisingly strong hold, losing just 3 percent of its opening-weekend audience.
It garnered almost as much attention for its reported record-breaking budget of at least $300 million as for its 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.
"Sherlock Holmes" looks set to give Downey his second movie franchise after "Iron Man." It ranks as the fifth-biggest December opener in North America, and it set a Christmas Day opening record of $24.8 million.
Warner Bros. is talking about sequel prospects but no decisions have been made yet, said Dan Fellman, president of distribution at the Time Warner Inc unit. Downey reinvents the staid Holmes as a dashing superhero; Jude Law co-stars as Watson.
The "Alvin and the Chipmunks" sequel ranks No. 7 among all-time December openings in North America. "Alvin" and "It's Complicated" come from female directors, Betty Thomas and Nancy Meyers, respectively, a rare appearance by two women in the top tier.
The No. 5 spot went to "Up in the Air," which rose three places in its first weekend of wide release. Director Jason Reitman's meditation on love and loneliness in corporate America has earned $24.5 million since Viacom Inc's Paramount Pictures released it in 15 theaters on December 4.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Xavier Briand