Avatar is in the running for a few Oscars March 7th as well. With nine nominations, it can't possibly compete with Cameron's other epic, which in 1997 won eleven Oscars (a record shared by Ben Hur and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King). As a sci-fi fantasy adventure, Avatar will probably settle for four or five technical prizes. But Oscar wins will unlikely boost its box office. If you haven't heard of Avatar at this point, you live in a cave.
The next big question is whether Fox will rerelease the movie. Expect a 3-D rerelease later this year and a bare-bones DVD release on Earth Day, April 22, in good old-fashioned 2-D. When 3-D blu-rays are available--Cameron says that could be as early as November, while Fox demurs--we'll get to see the enhanced bells-and-whistles DVD.
Back in 1997, Titanic stayed in theaters for a long, long time. To really put Avatar's record-breaking box-office in perspective--when price inflation and premium IMAX and 3-D tickets are factored in (Avatar broke the IMAX $200-million record last weekend)--the real measure is attendance. Right now Avatar is climbing the attendance chart toward the top-ten champions of all time.
Avatar is currently positioned at #15 on Box Office Mojo's Box Office Attendance chart. (They take the domestic gross and divide it by the average ticket price of any given year, in this case, $7.50.) Next we'll see if Avatar can push into the top 10, and then overtake Titanic at #6. Could it ever pass the rereleased Star Wars at #2 or even Gone With The Wind, which has been comfortable at #1 for 71 years? Snyder points out that these films had far less competition from other entertainment, much less the internet. And that Birth of a Nation and The Great Train Robbery probably registered more global admissions before there were any box office records.
In order for Avatar to top Titanic, Star Wars or Gone with the Wind, it would need to remain timeless. How long will its visual peaks remain the Everest of cinematic potential? As audience tastes change over time, they keep demanding more. It takes a very special movie to satisfy them not just for a few years, but for decades.
[Chart courtesy Box Office Mojo; additional reporting by Sophia Savage.]