January 5, 2010 / 4:42 AM / 9 years ago

"Avatar" headed to No. 2 at all-time box office

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - By this time next week, James Cameron should have the two highest-grossing films in history.

Director of the movie James Cameron and his wife Suzy Amis pose at the premiere of "Avatar" at the Mann's Grauman Chinese theatre in Hollywood, California December 16, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The amazing feat for Cameron, his Lightstorm Entertainment production shingle and “Avatar” — which has topped $1 billion worldwide — follows the filmmaker’s success in 1997-98 with “Titanic,” the top-grossing picture ever. Fox is handling worldwide distribution on “Avatar” after partnering with Paramount for the release of “Titanic.”

Like that film, “Avatar” is ringing up far more foreign revenues than in the United States and Canada. In fact, the pricey picture only now is poised to crack the list of top 10 all-time domestic grossers.

“It doesn’t matter where we are domestically,” said Jon Landau, Cameron’s producing partner at Lightstorm. “The movie business has become an international business. When you release movies, you have to figure out whether the movies will play internationally.”

Landau deflected a question about how high “Avatar” could fly by recalling the comment of one-time Fox distribution executive Tom Sherak, now president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “It depends how many people go to see it,” Landau deadpanned.

Meanwhile, even executives at rival studios seem to be getting a kick out of the mind-bending performance of Fox’s motion-capture/live-action 3-D blockbuster, and Landau said he knows why.

“It shows the potential of the industry,” he said. “It shows people want to go to the movies.”

The eventual rise of “Avatar” to the silver-medal position among all-time global grosses will see the December 18 opener blow past two pictures still ahead in the pecking order. Coming off the weekend with $1 billion and counting, “Avatar” in coming days will rise above 2006’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” ($1.07 billion) and then 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” ($1.12 billion).

“It’s not a likelihood — it’s just a question of when,” mused one industry observer.

On the other hand, few would suggest “Avatar” has any chance of outdistancing “Titanic,” which registered $1.84 billion during the course of its months-long theatrical cruise.

Still, “Avatar” any day now should also replace “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” ($380.3 million) as the 10th-highest-grossing film in domestic box office history. Through Sunday, the film had socked away $352.1 million in North America.

The 2-1/2-hour epic has fetched far more in foreign lucre at an incredible $676.9 million. Action films tend to outperform overseas, but the outsized international tally for “Avatar” also reflects the growing opportunity for film releasing worldwide.

“There are markets in the international marketplace that are just emerging as cinematic forces,” Landau said. “Take Russia, for example. Russia has more screens now than they did six months ago, and ‘Avatar’ is able to capitalize on that. Moviegoers are craving films that they didn’t get to see before, to go to the movie theater and escape. Cinemas just didn’t exist in many of their hometowns 10 years ago.”

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