At long last, after more than a decade of vague comments and rumors, tantalizing glimpses and big talk, James Cameron's sci-fi epic "Avatar" is finally arriving in theaters Thursday (December 17) at midnight. The crowds will gather, the tickets will be sold and the movie will finally be considered in the highest court: public opinion. Is it a game-changer for Hollywood? Will it break records, à la Cameron's "Titanic," a 1997 release that still sits atop the list of highest-grossing domestic releases of all time? The opening weekend is only the first step, but it's a vital one in answering these questions.
"The holy grail of 3-D has finally arrived," said Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "This is why all these 3-D venues were built: for [movie id="301495"]'Avatar.'[/movie] This is the one. The behemoth."
The size of this release as a blockbuster event cannot be understated. Leading online ticket retailer Fandango reports that "Avatar" accounts for 87 percent of the week's advance ticket sales, well ahead of where 2009 blockbuster "Star Trek" was at the same point. And unlike J.J. Abrams' franchise reboot, Cameron is selling people on a wholly new universe, complete with a fully developed alien world and a distant future human society.
So there's no pre-existing fanbase, other than Cameron's own, and there's very little context for viewers to walk into the movie with. Even now, hours before wide audiences can start checking it out for themselves, "Avatar" is something of a staggering achievement.
Now we circle back to the big question mark that is this opening weekend. The cautionary estimate is that "Avatar" will bring in around $60 million in its opening weekend. Bock feels that the number will fall between $80 million and 100 million — perhaps even more than that.
"I definitely think that it has a chance [to break $100 million]," Bock said. "Only two other films now — 'New Moon' and 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' — have opened at over $100 million during the holiday season. So it doesn't happen very often."
One thing weighing heavily in favor of "Avatar" is the higher ticket cost associated with 3-D and IMAX 3-D digital screenings. The lion's share of scheduled showings — more than two-thirds — will run under these premium conditions, which is sure to have an impact on the opening-weekend earnings.
"Considering that [a holiday movie breaking $100 million in its opening weekend] has only happened twice, I'd have to go with that number," Bock said. "That said, depending on how many people go 3-D versus 2-D, we're talking about a big uptick in pricing, so we could be talking about $120, $130 million."
Check out everything we've got on "Avatar."
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