This past weekend, James Cameron’s Avatar opened big — not Twilight big, but big nonetheless. And just like Cameron’s last film Titanic, experts predict that it will have staying power, adding quite a few dollars (and maybe a decimal place) to the $232 million that it brought in worldwide in its first three days.

Lets explore…

It’s All About Stamina

If we hearken back to 1997 — the third weekend of December to be exact — we will note that Titanic opened to a simmering $28 million, barely beating out the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies ($25 million) for the weekend win. It went on however, to play in theaters for 41 weeks, adding $572 million dollars in domestic take and becoming the highest grossing film of all-time (unadjusted), a title it still holds today (despite a good run from The Dark Knight).

The question now becomes whether Avatar will do the same. According to The LA Times, the word of mouth is strong, so strong that folks at Fox are predicting that the film could reach $200 million domestically before the turn of the year. According to CinemaScore — a company that performs audience exit polls to gauge word-of-mouth and repeat viewing potential — every demographic gave Avatar an average grade of A, meaning those who didn’t turn out for opening weekend will certainly be getting recommendations from the folks who generated the first $73 million this past weekend.

The 3D and IMAX Phenom

One of the other most encouraging things about Avatar‘s opening weekend is how well it performed in 3D and IMAX locations. Its 3D theaters — just over half of its total theater count — brought in a whopping $52 million, or 71% of its total domestic gross. Audiences are also buzzing about 3D, as it is the main draw of the film, as cited by the CinemaScore survey as well as critical consensus (Avatar is at 83% on RottenTomatoes) that says that the film, above all else, is a great technical achievement. The box office numbers suggest that 3D is finally taking off, as expected.

This morning, the IMAX corporation reported record returns on Avatar as well, saying that it took in the largest domestic opening weekend of all-time at $9.5 million. Their press release also said that many IMAX theaters are adding additional shows to meet demand, which is encouraging going into Christmas weekend.

Can Avatar Hit the $1 Billion Mark?

Absolutely, without a doubt. 34k votes on IMDb have the film at an 8.9 out of 10. Critics on MetaCritic have it at 83/100. The movie is good enough, there’s no subjectivity too it anymore. Good enough to gain acclaim, good enough to dazzle audiences, and easily compared to what Titanic was to 1997 — grand scale, demographic-spanning story and buzzworthy technical achievement. That movie made $1.8 billion in 41 weeks. Since then, only three films — Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and The Dark Knight — have crossed the $1 billion milestone. It will take all of those 41 or so weeks that Titanic took, but Avatar can certainly get there. In the end, it will be up to how far word-of-mouth carries the film. And in this writer’s opinion, it will hinge on next weekend’s take, both domestically and around the world. If Avatar makes it big on Christmas weekend (even if it doesn’t beat Sherlock Holmes), it will be on its way to a billion.

So at this point, we’ll check back in on this discussion on December 28th.

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