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Weekend box office report: What recession?

Posted by Ty Burr  December 28, 2009 09:32 AM

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Hollywood got the Christmas present it was hoping for with the biggest-grossing movie weekend of all time: an estimated $278 million Friday/Saturday/Sunday that was fueled by surging word of mouth for James Cameron's "Avatar." How strong is the buzz? The film declined a mere 3 percent from its opening weekend, remarkable considering the Xmas-day competition arrayed against it. "Avatar" led the pack with an estimated $75 million, followed by a robust "Sherlock Holmes" with $65.4 million, "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The" -- shudder -- "Squeakquel" with $50 million, and the Meryl Streep/Alec Baldwin romantic farce "It's Complicated" with $22 million.

This suggest brilliant counterscheduling on the part of the studios, with each audience demographic offered exactly what it wanted to see. But that's only on the surface: What movie did my teenage daughters ask to be taken to on Saturday night? Not "Avatar" - I couldn't pay them to go. No, "It's Complicated," featuring two of their favorite stars, La Streep and Baldwin, who they know and love from "30 Rock." So much for the Nancy Meyers movie appealing only to graying baby boomers.

There were other checkers moved around the board. "Up in the Air" finally went wide from 200 theaters to almost 2,000 and saw its weekend gross bump up 226 percent from the previous week to $12 million. "The Blind Side" still has legs, too, dropping 640 theaters but increasing its weekend take by 17 percent. The Rob Marshall musical "Nine" failed to turn the trick, though: It went from four theaters to 1,412 and raked in a weak $5 million. Dreary reviews will do that to a movie.

Limited releases that expanded for the Xmas weekend and performed solidly include "The Young Victoria," Pedro Aldomovar's "Broken Embraces," the fine Colin Firth drama "A Single Man," and "Crazy Heart," with Jeff Bridges strumming his way toward an Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, Paramount/Dreamworks seems to be paralyzed by the poisonous reviews for "The Lovely Bones" -- the film has been sitting in the same three theaters for three weeks, slowly losing steam. It doesn't get released in Boston until January 15, by which point it will qualify as a full-fledged January dog.

One thing to note with all the calloo-callaying over the box office records that fell this weekend: premium ticket prices for "Avatar" -- and for all the 3D/IMAX presentation this year -- are a major reason for the high numbers. Yes, this has been Hollywood's finest year in terms of total monies rolling in ($10.4 billion, thank you very much), but factor in inflation and 3D ticket sales, and fewer people actually went to the movies in 2009 (1.4 billion) than in the peak year of 2002 (1.6 billion).

But what's 200 million people when you've successfully sold the public on a new era in moviegoing? Over three-quarters of the audience for "Avatar" -- 77 percent -- saw the film in 3D or IMAX. Believe it: in less than five years, that number will be a routine 100 percent.

More box office prognostications at Box Office Mojo and Leonard Klady, with the New York Times also weighing in today. 

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is's features editor.

Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at

Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for

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