LOS ANGELES (AP) -- James Cameron launched his science-fiction epic "Avatar" into a safe orbit as the costly film soared to No. 1 with $73 million domestically and $159.2 million overseas, for a $232.2 million worldwide total.
With that big a start, distributor 20th Century Fox was quick to proclaim it made a good investment with the estimated $400 million spent to make and market the film, which is Cameron's first narrative feature since 1997's "Titanic," the king of modern blockbusters.
"Absolutely. No question," said Chris Aronson, head of distribution for the studio, which reported stellar reaction in exit polls from audiences after seeing "Avatar." "The word of mouth is something that I don't know I've ever seen in this business before."
"Avatar" was a test case for the future of digital 3-D projection, which until now has been a hit with audiences mainly on animated family films.
The film fell short of the record for December debuts of $77.2 million set two years ago by Will Smith's "I Am Legend." But it did break the record for a film opening in 3-D, previously held by last summer's "Up" with $68.1 million.
"What they spent on this movie was totally justified, and they're going to more than earn it back," said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com.
"Avatar" stars Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in a love story amid human-alien conflict on a distant moon in the 22nd century.
Storms on the East Coast kept many people at home, cutting into weekend movie business.
"The weather really, really hurt," said Rory Bruer, head of distribution at Sony, whose comedy "Did You Hear About the Morgans?", opened at a weak No. 4 with $7 million. Sony had expected the movie to debut at about $8 million.
The movie stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant as a couple whose crumbling marriage gets a fresh jolt after they see a murder and are sent into witness protection.
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The overall box office shot up on the strength of "Avatar." Hollywood's domestic revenues came in at $134 million, up 51.5 percent from the same weekend last year, when "Yes Man" opened at No. 1 with $18.3 million, according to Hollywood.com.
The previous weekend's No. 1 movie, Disney's animated musical "The Princess and the Frog," slipped to second place with $12.2 million, raising its total to $44.8 million.
Paramount's recession story "Up in the Air," which led last Tuesday's Golden Globes announcement with six nominations, broke into the top 10 as it widened to more theaters ahead of its nationwide expansion Wednesday.
"Up in the Air" came in at No. 8 with $3.1 million. The film stars George Clooney as a man addicted to the frequent-flyer life as he travels the country firing people at downsizing companies.
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Two music-themed films had strong starts in limited release as they position themselves for Academy Awards attention. The Weinstein Co. musical "Nine" opened big with $246,933 in four theaters, for an average of $61,733 a cinema, compared to an average of $21,147 in 3,452 theaters for "Avatar."
Based on the stage musical that was inspired by Federico Fellini's film masterpiece "8 1/2," "Nine" has an all-star cast that includes Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz and Kate Hudson. "Nine" goes into nationwide release Christmas Day.
Fox Searchlight's "Crazy Heart," starring Jeff Bridges as a boozy country singer trying to turn his life around, pulled in $84,204 at four theaters in New York City and Los Angeles, averaging $21,051 a cinema. The film expands to four more markets on Christmas Day.
No one expects "Avatar" to be another "Titanic," which started with a modest $28.6 million opening weekend domestically but held on at No. 1 for months. The film finished with a record $600 million domestically and $1.8 billion worldwide.
Before "Avatar" opened, Cameron had said the movie might not have a "slam-dunk opening weekend" but that its profitability hinged on how well it held up in subsequent weekends.
Unlike other Hollywood franchises, which usually are based on comic books, TV shows, toys or other existing stories and ideas, "Avatar" was an original tale whose concept was not pre-sold to audiences.
Much of the action takes place among 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned aliens created by digital cameras that captured actors' performances, with computer animation adding the details of the characters, along with the exotic backgrounds and other effects.
Some reviewers found the story and characters two-dimensional, but critics generally were wowed by the dazzling images Cameron created.
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"I think it is the must-see film event of recent memory," Fox executive Aronson said. "I do believe it is a game-changing movie. It will change the way people think about movies, the way they see movies, what they want to see in movies."
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "Avatar," $73 million.
2. "The Princess and the Frog," $12.2 million.
3. "The Blind Side," $10 million.
4. "Did You Hear About the Morgans?", $7 million.
5. "The Twilight Saga" New Moon," $4.4 million.
6. "Invictus," $4.2 million.
7. "Disney's a Christmas Carol," $3.4 million.
8. "Up in the Air," $3.1 million.
9. "Brothers," $2.6 million.
10. "Old Dogs," $2.3 million.
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Universal Pictures and Focus Features are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric Co.; Sony Pictures, Sony Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics are units of Sony Corp.; Paramount and Paramount Vantage are divisions of Viacom Inc.; Disney's parent is The Walt Disney Co.; Miramax is a division of The Walt Disney Co.; 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Fox Atomic are owned by News Corp.; Warner Bros. and New Line are units of Time Warner Inc.; MGM is owned by a consortium of Providence Equity Partners, Texas Pacific Group, Sony Corp., Comcast Corp., DLJ Merchant Banking Partners and Quadrangle Group; Lionsgate is owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.; IFC Films is owned by Rainbow Media Holdings, a subsidiary of Cablevision Systems Corp.; Rogue Pictures is owned by Relativity Media LLC; Overture Films is a subsidiary of Liberty Media Corp.