Avatar Shoots Past Star Wars as the No. 3 Movie All Time

James Cameron‘s Avatar had a $41.3 million weekend to shoot past Star Wars as the No. 3 movie on the all-time domestic box office charts. Next stop, The Dark Knight.

No. 1 for the fifth-straight weekend, Cameron’s sci-fi saga raised its domestic total to $491.8 million and should top $500 million after revenues are counted on Martin Luther King Day, according to studio estimates Sunday.

Worldwide, 20th Century Fox‘s Avatar lifted its total to $1.6 billion, second only to Cameron’s last movie, 1997’s Titanic, at $1.8 billion.

“One guy makes two movies in 10 years, and they’re by far the biggest movies of all time. That’s remarkable,” said Chris Aronson, head of distribution for the studio.

Avatar topped the original Star Wars, which took in $460.9 million domestically in its original run and several reissues over the years. But factoring in today’s higher admission prices, Star Wars remains well ahead of Avatar on actual number of tickets sold.

Avatar now is closing in on The Dark Knight, No. 2 domestically with $533.3 million. After that, only Cameron’s Titanic at $600 million will remain ahead of Avatar domestically.

“We’ll be proud of our No. 3 slot,” said Dan Fellman, head of distribution for Warner Bros., which released The Dark Knight and has hopes for more in the Batman franchise from its director, Christopher Nolan. “I can just give Chris Nolan a nudge that he’s got to raise the bar.”

Warner, which has Nolan’s sci-fi tale Inception with Leonardo DiCaprio opening this July, had a strong No. 2 debut of $31.6 million for its action thriller The Book of Eli. The movie stars Denzel Washington as a post-apocalypse prophet carrying the last known Bible to safe haven across a decimated America.

Expanding nationwide after a month in limited release, Paramount‘s drama The Lovely Bones came in at No. 3 with $17.1 million. Directed by The Lord of the Rings creator Peter Jackson, The Lovely Bones features Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Stanley Tucci in the story of a murdered teen looking back on the world from the afterlife.

Lionsgate‘s family action tale The Spy Next Door debuted at No. 6 with $9.7 million. It stars Jackie Chan as a newly retired agent forced back into the spy game when bad guys come after him and his girlfriend’s kids.

Like Titanic, which dominated the Academy Awards 12 years ago, Avatar is expected to remain aloft in the box office charts as Oscar season progresses. Avatar was up for best drama at Sunday’s Golden Globes and is considered a likely best-picture nominee when Oscar nominations come out Feb. 2.

“It’s kind of the cherry on top of the cake for this movie to not only be a massive box office hit, but to get all this awards attention,” said Paul Dergarabedian, box office analyst for Hollywood.com. “It’s hard sometimes to get a 50- or 60-year-old out of their chair to go see a science-fiction movie in 3-D. But if Avatar gets enough recognition from the critics, they may just do it.”

Fox executive Aronson would not say if the studio expects Avatar to pass either the $600 million domestic total for Titanic or its $1.8 billion worldwide total. Some box office watchers say Avatar could climb as high $2 billion, though.

Titanic was a ship. Batman had a motorcycle. Avatar’s a rocket ship,” Aronson said. “Is there a lot of fuel left in the tank? You bet.”

Even if Avatar sets a new revenue record, it’s doubtful it would sell as many tickets as Titanic did because of today’s higher admission prices.

Titanic sold about 130 million tickets domestically based on average ticket prices of about $4.60 back in 1997 and 1998. Based on today’s average domestic price of about $7.50, Avatar would be at around half that mark.

Average admission prices for Avatar likely run even higher, given that much of its business comes from a 3-D version, which costs a few dollars extra to see.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Final figures will be released Tuesday.

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