A little over six years ago, James Cameron‘s Avatar opened in cinemas worldwide. Opening in almost 3.500 theaters in the United States, the film scored a relatively modest 77 million debut. It was the fifth largest opening of 2009, behind Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince (77.8 million), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (85 million), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (108.9 million), and nearly half of the year’s biggest opener The Twilight Saga: New Moon (142.8 million).
On the foreign stage, it opened with 162 million, for a collected worldwide bow of 241.6 million in its first weekend. It had the third largest worldwide opening of 2009, behind The Twilight Saga: New Moon‘s 274.9 million and far behind Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince‘s 394 million. On the bright side, it scored the highest debut of a non-franchise film on both the domestic and worldwide circuit of 2009.
The film made massive waves when it grossed 75.6 million in its second weekend, dropping only an unheard of 1.8% from its first weekend. The film was marketed as a must-see film, garnering critical and fan acclaim for its spectacular visuals and fantastic 3D experience. It went on to make an unprecedented 2.7 billion at the worldwide box office, making nearly a billion more than the previous record holder Titanic‘s 1.84 billion. It was the first film to ever cross the 2 billion mark worldwide, an achievement that wouldn’t be repeated in an original run until this month when Star Wars: The Force Awakens entered a club that had only had James Cameron as a member since Avatar crossed the 2 billion mark in 2010.
J.J. Abrams‘ space epic has run havok with the domestic box office, crossing 900 million this week following its record breaking 247.9 million opening weekend. Its tally far exceeds Avatar‘s previous record of 760.5 million. However, the Skywalker saga has been unable to topple Cameron’s worldwide gross, still lagging over 700 million behind its final tally. While Star Wars: The Force Awakens still has a couple of months left in theaters it seems unlikely the film will manage to achieve what so many thought it would before the film’s release, as Avatar’s record will likely remain untouched. At this point, it is even uncertain whether Star Wars will catch Titanic, which following an impressive 3D release in 2012 stands at 2.18 billion worldwide.
The Force Awakens‘ failure to beat Avatar raises an interesting question: can Avatar’s worldwide gross ever be beaten? The film made its fortune through word of mouth, and a marketing campaign that branded it as “a must see theatrical experience”. The success of this strategy elevated the film from a relatively modest opening to the biggest gross of all time. Recent attempts at the record by Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World had massive worldwide openings with 529 million and 524.9 million respectively, easily beating Avatar‘s comparatively modest worldwide opening of 241.6 million. However, despite an early lead Jurassic World tapped out with still a billion to go at 1.67 billion worldwide, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens likely just has 100 million or so left in the tank, and will close with around 2.1-2.2 billion worldwide.
A lot of people expected Star Wars: The Force Awakens to beat Avatar‘s theatrical run, and following its failure to do so have placed their hopes in Star Wars VIII (2017) and Star Wars IX (2019) to finish the job. Some people are also predicting that the long awaited Avatar sequels, which have an expected release some time in 2017, 2018 and 2019 will manage to replicate the success of the original. However, all of these films will likely follow the same path as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World. They will have massive opening weekends, burning a lot of interest early on, which means they will struggle to get as high as Avatar‘s 2.7 billion tally.
With inflation and increased ticket prices, it is likely Avatar‘s worldwide total will get beaten one day. However, it seems unlikely it’ll happen anytime soon.