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Avatar to Lose 3-D and IMAX Screens, Still Breaks Records

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood February 25, 2010 at 1:55AM

We all know that Avatar has broken all box office records, unseating former king of the world Titanic. The James Cameron sci-fi epic holds the record for domestic ($690 million) and worldwide ($2.5 billion) gross.
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Thompson on Hollywood

We all know that Avatar has broken all box office records, unseating former king of the world Titanic. The James Cameron sci-fi epic holds the record for domestic ($690 million) and worldwide ($2.5 billion) gross.

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.

Thompson on Hollywood

You may want to hit your local IMAX and 3-D theater before March 5 if you want to see Avatar in the ideal format one more time. By March 5 Avatar will lose most of its IMAX screens, and distributor Twentieth Century Fox will be fighting with theater owners to hang on to as many 3-D screens as possible. That's because Disney's 3-D Alice in Wonderland is taking over. Right now Avatar is in 2581 locations of which 2169 are 3-D (including 179 IMAX screens). Fox will probably exchange many of the 3-D screens it loses for 2-D, and Fox distrib chief Bruce Snyder expects to stay in theaters for at least another month. "We're still selling out prime shows in 3-D in the evenings," he says.

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.

Thompson on Hollywood

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.]

This article is related to: Box Office, Directors, Franchises, Studios, Exhibition, Winter, Tim Burton, Avatar, Twentieth Century Fox, Disney


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.