Stephen Lang plays Col. Miles Quaritch in the epic "Avatar,"… (20th Century Fox )
Snow on the East Coast put a dent in the domestic opening of "Avatar" but wasn't enough to keep the hugely expensive movie from the global launch it needed.
The 3-D epic from director James Cameron, which cost $430 million to make and market, launched with a studio-estimated $232.2 million in worldwide ticket sales. It was the biggest debut ever for a movie that wasn't a sequel.
In the U.S. and Canada, bad weather limited the haul for the film to a solid but far from spectacular $73 million.
Depressed attendance in the snowy Northeast and mid-Atlantic region Saturday probably kept it from beating the December record of $77.2 million set by "I Am Legend" two years ago.
Overseas, however, audiences plunged in. Despite frigid weather in northern Europe, "Avatar" collected $159.2 million internationally, the biggest ever simultaneous foreign launch for a non-sequel, behind only installments in such mega-franchises as "Harry Potter," "Spider-Man" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."
Most important for distributor 20th Century Fox, the prospects for huge returns in the coming weeks are very strong. Japan and China, two of the biggest markets for effects-laden adventure movies, will get the movie Wednesday and Jan. 2, respectively.
In the U.S. and Canada, "Avatar" will benefit as those who saw it start talking to those who haven't. Audiences gave it an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore. And with Christmas falling on a Friday, Fox executives are buzzing that "Avatar" could gross about as much in its second weekend as in its first and hit $200 million by the end of the year.
"You don't often get a massive event movie like this that combines spectacle and scale with great reviews and word of mouth," Fox co-Chairman Jim Gianopulos said. "That's why we have such wonderful anticipation for the rest of the holiday season and well into the new year."
Gianopulos said he's particularly hopeful that more women will come out as positive buzz about "Avatar" spreads. Females made up only 43% of the film's opening-weekend audience. Stronger attendance by women in coming weeks will be key to the movie's long-term success.
If they do turn out in bigger numbers, "Avatar" could easily end up with more than $250 million domestically and more than $600 million overseas, based on the performance of comparable films. It might even become just the fifth movie to top the $1-billion mark.
A final gross in that range would put Fox and its financing partners Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners close to profitability based on theatrical revenues alone. Future sales from DVD, television and other markets would put them well into the black.
Studios typically receive half of a movie's domestic and 40% of its international box-office revenue. The three companies spent about $280 million to produce "Avatar" after tax credits. Fox spent an additional $150 million to market and distribute it worldwide.
The largest factor in its performance beyond word of mouth was 3-D. Domestically, theaters with 3-D screens accounted for 71% of the movie's gross despite representing only 59% of those playing it. Overseas, the disparity was far more dramatic, with 25% of screens and 56% of ticket sales in 3-D.
The difference was large enough to demonstrate that higher ticket prices weren't the only reason that 3-D screens generated higher revenue -- they also drew bigger audiences. The availability of 3-D screens was one of the key risk factors in the production of "Avatar": Disputes between theater owners and studios over financing their installation put the movie, whose appeal is premised in large part on the technology, in jeopardy. Although the total number of screens was not as high as Cameron and Fox had hoped, it was enough to drive the opening they needed.
"It was not a 3-D phenomenon everywhere, but in the places where theaters were available, it overwhelmingly leaned that way," Gianopulos said.
The romantic comedy "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant, opened to a weak $7 million. Sony Pictures and Relativity Media, which spent $58 million to make the movie, are hoping it will play well over the holidays, an unlikely prospect because audiences graded it B-minus.
Walt Disney Studios' animated feature "The Princess and the Frog" and Warner Bros.' Clint Eastwood drama "Invictus" declined 50% and 52%, respectively. The two companies had hoped for smaller drops after so-so starts last weekend.
Many in Hollywood were also focused on the limited box office this weekend, as smaller movies jockeyed for attention after Tuesday's Golden Globe nominations.
The musical adaptation "Nine" got off to a very strong start despite mixed reviews, opening to $246,933 at four theaters.
Despite better reviews, country music drama "Crazy Heart" debuted with a much softer $84,204 at four theaters. Fox Searchlight plans to expand its low-budget movie starring Jeff Bridges slowly in hopes of building momentum.
Weinstein Co., meanwhile, hopes to use this weekend to jump-start its $64-million production of "Nine" and will take it nationwide Friday.
Paramount is doing the same with its critically acclaimed George Clooney drama "Up in the Air," which continued its impressive run with $3.1 million at 175 theaters in its third weekend.