Blue aliens help Hollywood to its best weekend at the box office

In addition to mistletoe and wine, the average American Christmas seems to have consisted of popcorn, 3D spectacles and a tribe of tree-hugging blue aliens, as the continued success of the sci-fi film Avatar helped Hollywood achieve its most lucrative weekend since records began.

The James Cameron movie stayed on top of the box-office charts for a second consecutive week, selling $75m (£47m) worth of tickets, as cinemas in the US and Canada reported total estimated box-office receipts in excess of $278m for the three days from Friday to Sunday.

That figure easily beat the previous weekend record of $260.5m, recorded in July last year when the Batman film The Dark Knight debuted. Even accounting for inflation, it represents the biggest 72-hour take in modern history, according to Hollywood.com, an industry website which carries data going back to 1985.

Cinema-going is part of the Christmas Day ritual for many American families, and film studios often use the holiday to flood the market with eagerly anticipated new titles. This year was exceptional, however, in that the date saw three very different films achieve what amounts to instant blockbuster status. Avatar, in its second week of release, was closely followed by Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, which defied mixed reviews to post a healthy $65.4m. In third was children's animation Alvin and the Chipmunks: the Squeakquel, which made $50.2m.

Box-office analysts said the extraordinary figures were boosted by a mixture of good luck – Christmas fell on a Friday, meaning that the holiday exactly spanned the 72-hour reporting period – and the fact that Avatar was made in 3D, which encouraged viewers to shell out as much as 50 per cent more to see the title in special theatres.

The figures also reflect a long-term trend. Hollywood has defied the troubled economy this year to post record overall ticket sales. With three days left in 2009, receipts have now passed $10bn for the first time, giving credence to a theory stretching back to the Great Depression: that cash-strapped Americans view the cinema as a cheap night out.

Although film-makers are struggling to secure finance for quirkier projects, movies that boast mass-market appeal have shown remarkable staying power. The Sandra Bullock film The Blind Side, about American football, is still sixth in the charts, a month and a half after it was released, and has made a total of $185m.

The global success of Avatar has turned it into the clear front-runner for the 2010 Oscars. The film took Cameron a decade to make, and its state-of-the-art special effects, plus the wage bill for the estimated 1,200 people who worked on it, contributed to 20th Century Fox's enormous production costs – between $350m and $500m, depending on whose estimates you believe. That gamble now appears to have paid off.

Most projections suggest that it will become only the fourth title in history to top $1bn. However, it is unlikely to threaten the status of the highest-earning film ever: Titanic, Cameron's 1997 hit, swept the board at the Oscars and netted more than $1.8bn.

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