'Avatar' rules as North American moviegoers set record

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The Independent Culture

A pack of hit films led by science fiction epic "Avatar" sent North American box office figures surging to the highest-grossing weekend in movie history, an industry tracker said Monday.

The Christmas holiday weekend saw movie-goers flock to theaters in droves, sending earnings soaring to nearly 270 million dollars, an all-time record, California-based Exhibitor Relations revealed.

The figure smashed the previous best weekend mark of 260.3 million dollars set in July 2008, when Batman blockbuster "The Dark Knight" opened to huge audiences in Canada and the United States.

But instead of one film accounting for the lion's share of the take, this year's record weekend was driven by a crop of movies that raked in big numbers, with the top three films earning around 50 million dollars or higher.

The effects-laden, 3-D epic "Avatar" - director James Cameron's first film since the 1997 Oscar-winner "Titanic" - earned 75.6 million dollars from Friday to Sunday.

The film, which cost between 300 and 500 million dollars to produce, is also the most expensive movie ever made.

"Avatar" was followed by a slew of new releases, including Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes," starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, which earned 62.4 million dollars. "Avatar" and "Sherlock Holmes" accounted for 53 percent of the weekend box office.

Opening in third place was the comedy "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," which took 48.9 million dollars.

"The decade is ending with a bang," said Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock. "It's an amazing thing when three films go over 50 million dollars."

Bock noted the remarkable staying power shown by "Avatar," which registered only a two percent drop in earnings in its second week.

"James Cameron is a movie magician," Bock said. "'Avatar' is playing like 'Titanic.' The word of mouth is sensational, and it's also brought people who've never watched a 3D film before into theaters, a new demographic."

"It's Complicated," a love triangle comedy starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, opened in fourth place with 22.1 million dollars in takings.

In fifth place with 11.5 million dollars was "Up in the Air," starring George Clooney in the acclaimed story of a corporate downsizer who questions his role in life.

Sixth was "The Blind Side," a drama about a white couple who give an illiterate black teen a home and a new lease on life, with 11.3 million dollars.

Disney's animated movie "The Princess and the Frog," the first featuring an African-American princess, dropped to seventh place with 9.0 million dollars.

Next was "Nine," starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a film director in mid-life crisis juggling a wife (Marion Cotillard), mistress (Penelope Cruz) and film star muse (Nicole Kidman). The film adaptation of a Broadway musical based on the Federico Fellini film "8 1/2" made 5.5 million dollars.

Ninth place went to "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" a romantic comedy in which Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker play an estranged couple who witness a mob hit and are placed in a witness protection program. It grossed 5.0 million dollars in its second week.

Rounding out the top ten with 4.4 million dollars was "Invictus," directed by Clint Eastwood and starring veteran actor Morgan Freeman, about how South African president Nelson Mandela united the country around the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

At 10.3 billion dollars, box office takings for the year, so far, are also the highest on record. Expected to finish at 10.5 billion, 2009 will top 2008, which raked in 9.6 billion, the industry trackers said.

Bock noted that ticket sales were also on course to finish 2009 up by around 4.3 percent.

"You could say the recession had a lot to do with it, that it was escapism," Bock said. "But the bottom line is that this year Hollywood really delivered the products people wanted to see."

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