'DEAR JOHN': It could replace "Avatar" as No. 1. (Scott Garfield / Sony Pictures )
"Avatar" will have to fight off "The Hurt Locker" at next month's Academy Awards, but James Cameron's sci-fi blockbuster faces a more imminent threat this weekend: losing the top spot at the box office.
For seven consecutive weeks, "Avatar" has ruled the domestic charts. The film surpassed the writer-director's "Titanic" on Tuesday for the biggest domestic gross in Hollywood history, as "Avatar's" North American receipts of more than $601.1 million improved upon "Titanic's" haul of $598.5 million. "Avatar" previously beat "Titanic's" global record gross of $1.8 billion, with worldwide ticket sales of more than $2 billion and counting.
For all the records that the Pandoran fantasy has amassed, it will not outdo one of "Titanic's" most remarkable achievements: holding the No. 1 box-office position for 15 straight weekends.
In fact, while "Avatar" might lose its perch this weekend to the military romance “Dear John,” the film will definitely fall the following week to the fast-rising romantic comedy “Valentine’s Day” -- which could gross more than $50 million in its four-day debut -- according to audience tracking surveys. Two events make "Avatar's" exact fall from first place difficult to predict: the Oscar nominations and the Super Bowl.
When "Titanic" collected a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations 12 years ago, the sinking superliner movie (then playing in its ninth weekend) improved more than 22% from the previous weekend. "Avatar" drew nine Academy Award selections on Tuesday, tying it with director Kathryn Bigelow's bomb defuser drama "The Hurt Locker" for the most Oscar selections overall.
But "Titanic's" post-nomination surge in 1998 didn't coincide with the Super Bowl, which typically deflates grosses for all movies but can be slightly more punishing for films aimed at men.
Ticket sales for movies in wide release typically drop about 45% from Saturday to Sunday. But when that Sunday happens to be the same day as pro football's championship, the decline can be more precipitous -- 70% or more. A year ago, "Taken" premiered the same weekend as the Super Bowl. The thriller grossed $9.4 million on Friday, $11.7 million on Saturday, but just $3.6 million on Sunday, when the Pittsburgh Steelers were beating the Arizona Cardinals.
"Avatar" has been remarkably consistent from week to week, and slipped just 10.5% last weekend from the previous weekend, grossing $31.3 million. If the movie drops an additional 10% to 15%, it would finish with a three-day take of about $27 million. That's close to the predicted opening of "Dear John."
The latter film, adapted from a novel by Nicholas Sparks ("The Notebook"), stars Channing Tatum ("G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra") as a soldier on leave who falls in love with an idealistic college student played by Amanda Seyfried ("Mamma Mia!"). Audience tracking surveys show that while most men would rather iron napkins than sit through the film, women -- particularly those younger than age 20 -- are eager to see it. Audience interest in the other new wide release, the John Travolta thriller “From Paris With Love” (from "Taken" director Pierre Morel) does not look especially strong. Neither film is attracting favorable early reviews.
Marty Bowen, one of the producers of "Dear John," says its appeal might be broader.
"Men are reluctant to say that they care about [romantic movies], just like they are to say they care about beauty products," Bowen says. " 'Dear John' is particularly unique to the male perspective, given that it's about the soldier. But the relationship he has with his father is compelling to any man."
"Valentine's Day" looks far more robust, thanks to a cast filled with popular performers -- "Twilight's" Taylor Lautner, singer Taylor Swift, "The Hangover's" Bradley Cooper and even Julia Roberts -- and the seemingly perfect marriage of title and release date. A trailer for the film benefited greatly from being attached to prints of "The Blind Side."
"It's a Garry Marshall romantic comedy," producer Mike Karz says of the film's director, who also made "Pretty Woman." "So you know it's going to appeal very strongly to women. But what we've really been happy about is how well it's been playing to men. And it's such a feel-good movie, the perfect film for the times that we are in. You walk out of the theater in a very good mood."
If it is indeed the movie that pushes "Avatar" out of first place, "Valentine's Day" will be the second straight New Line film to unseat a Cameron-directed smash -- 12 years ago, "Titanic" was finally dethroned by New Line's "Lost in Space."
Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.