James Cameron grosses a billion... again -- ''Avatar'' was the clear leader in a holiday box office season that included ''Sherlock Holmes'' and ''Nine''

Days before the opening of Avatar, director James Cameron sat in a Los Angeles hotel suite, eating a croissant and wondering how his little sci-fi movie might fare. He’d heard the jokes about Smurfs. He’d endured the speculation about how many hundreds of millions of Twentieth Century Fox’s dollars he’d spent on the movie. He knew that there were many who wanted to see Avatar crash and burn. But he didn’t seem worried. ”I feel good. I think the film plays well,” he said. He shrugged. ”We’ll find out.”

We found out, all right. Riding a tide of rapturous word of mouth, Cameron’s eye-popping space epic dominated the holiday box office like a Na’vi on a banshee. With 3-D showings (and their higher prices) accounting for nearly 75 percent of its ticket sales, Avatar earned more than $350 million by the end of New Year’s weekend. As impressive as its domestic haul was, its overseas performance was truly staggering, driving Avatar past the $1 billion mark faster than any film in history. Even before opening in China, Avatar had already surpassed The Dark Knight‘s worldwide box office tally and was gunning for its next victims, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Once those are toppled (which they may be by the time you read this), there will be only one juggernaut standing between Avatar and the all-time global box office record: Cameron’s own Titanic.

Beating Titanic‘s grosses of $600 million domestic and $1.8 billion worldwide (not adjusted for inflation) will be a tall order, though. Titanic‘s staying power in theaters was like nothing witnessed before or since. Hordes of young movie-goers saw it over and over, keeping it No. 1 at the box office for 15 straight weekends and in the top 10 for six months. It’s unclear whether Avatar has that kind of repeat-viewing appeal (Leonardo DiCaprio does make for a more natural locker pinup than a blue-skinned alien). ”The question is, can Avatar sustain itself?” says one rival film executive. ”It’s too early to predict, but I wouldn’t bet against it.”

As for the Rest of the Box Office…

While Avatar made waves with moviegoers, some films managed to thrive in its wake. Others, though, were left with the proverbial lump of coal.

The Winners

The Blind Side
Sandra Bullock’s heartwarming drama was the holidays’ Little Engine That Could, staying in the top five for seven straight weeks. Not only has The Blind Side passed The Proposal to become Bullock’s highest-grossing film ever, but it is the all-time top-earning film driven by a female star. (My Big Fat Greek Wedding made $241 million in 2002 but was seen as more of an ensemble film than a vehicle for Nia Vardalos.) ”Sandy should be given proper credit,” says Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman. ”No [other actress] has generated this kind of business. And she proved she doesn’t have to be tripping and making jokes to do it.”

Sherlock Holmes
Thanks to Robert Downey Jr.’s typically atypical tweak on the legendary supersleuth, Holmes held its own against Cameron’s high-tech wizardry, pulling in a more-than-respectable $138.7 million. Even before the movie opened, Warner Bros. had already announced that a sequel was in the works — a decision that now seems elementary.

It’s Complicated
Despite mixed reviews, writer-director Nancy Meyers’ adult-targeted comedy turned out to be smart counterprogramming against the season’s big, splashy franchise films. Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin proved that if you give an older demographic something to see, they will open their wallets.

The Losers

The Princess and the Frog
Disney’s first traditional 2-D animated film in five years — featuring its first-ever black female protagonist — fell short of box office expectations despite rave reviews. (Competition from Alvin and those pesky chipmunks didn’t help.) Still, introducing a new character into Disney’s princess merchandising machine will reap dividends for years to come.

Did You Hear About the Morgans?
No, really, did you? Because this Hugh Grant-Sarah Jessica Parker romantic comedy was a total nonstarter at the box office, opening with a paltry $6.6 million. The one consolation: At least it’s fared better than Grant and Parker’s last film together, 1996’s flop Extreme Measures.

Despite the pedigree of director Rob Marshall (Chicago), this Oscar-baiting Fellini-inspired musical was unable to break through the holiday competition. The film’s raft of stars — including Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, and Penélope Cruz — is undeniably impressive. But tossing in a few blue creatures wouldn’t have hurt.

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