Avatar hits $1.6 billion worldwide

In an unprecedented display of strength, ``Avatar'' led the worldwide box office for a fifth consecutive weekend, fast catching up on all-time champ ``Titanic,'' distributor 20th Century Fox said Sunday.

James Cameron's sci-fi spectacular has now earned $1.6 billion, just $237 million short of the $1.8 billion record set by the filmmaker's ``Titanic'' in 1998.

``Titanic was a ship. Avatar's a rocket ship,'' said Chris Aronson, Fox's senior vice-president of domestic distribution.

The North American contribution stands at $491.8 million -- the third-highest tally of all time -- thanks to a $41.3 million weekend. Fox, a unit of News Corp, expects it to hit $500 million Monday, when business will get a boost from the  Martin Luther King holiday.

That will mark the film's 32nd day of release. By contrast, ''Titanic'' took 98 days to reach that tally on its way to a record $601 million. On the other hand, ``Avatar'' sales are inflated by higher ticket prices in general and premium pricing for 3-D screenings.

Aronson said he expected ``Avatar'' to surpass the $533 million haul of 2008's ``The Dark Knight'' next weekend, leaving only ``Titanic'' ahead of it. The No. 3 slot was previously held by ``Star Wars'' with $461 million.

Aronson said the $600 million level is ``within our sights,'' and he predicted the Feb. 2 announcement of the Academy Award nominations to pique interest.

``AVATAR'' AT $1.1 BILLION OVERSEAS

``Avatar'' is enjoying strong holds every weekend. In the current period, it was off just 18 percent. ``Titanic'' was the last movie to lead the box office for five consecutive weekends, although ``Avatar'' might struggle to reach its record of 15 unbroken weekends.

The foreign total stands at $1.1 billion after a $125 million weekend. ``Avatar'' trails the ``Titanic'' overseas haul of $1.2 billion by just $127 million.

``Avatar'' is the tale of a disabled ex-Marine sent from Earth to infiltrate a race of 10-foot blue aliens and persuade them to let his employer mine their homeland for natural resources. It was reportedly the most expensive film ever made, with a budget of at least $300 million.

Elsewhere in North America, Denzel Washington's ``The Book of Eli'' opened at No. 2 with $31.6 million, the actor's second-best opening after the $43 million launch of 2007's ''American Gangster.'' Young men accounted for about two-thirds of the audience for the Christian-themed apocalyptic thriller, said distributor Warner Bros. Pictures.

The $80 million film was produced by FedEx Corp Chairman Fred Smith's Alcon Prods., and distributed for a fee by Warner's Time Warner Inc parent. Alcon principal Andrew Kosove said he expected the film to reach the mid-$80 million range, surpassing the breakeven point of $67 million after DVD and TV sales are factored in.

Director Peter Jackson's adaptation of ``The Lovely Bones'' took the No. 3 spot with $17.1 million in its first weekend of national release, as the ``Twilight'' crowd flocked to the supernatural murder story.

Distributor Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc. said women accounted for almost three-quarters of the audience, and 40 per cent of moviegoers were aged under 20.

 The big-screen version of the Alice Sebold novel about a murdered girl had played in a total of three theaters in New York and Los Angeles for the past five weeks. Its total now stands at $17.5 million.

 The only other major new release was Hong Kong action hero Jackie Chan's family comedy ``The Spy Next Door,'' which opened at No. 6 with a modest $9.7 million. It was released by Lionsgate, a unit of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.

 

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