How 'Avatar' Can Beat 'Titanic'

It's been in theaters for three weekends and director James Cameron's Avatar is still going like gangbusters. Its billion-dollar (and counting) worldwide gross makes it a shoo-in as the all-time second-highest-grossing film, but can it topple the current No. 1, Cameron's Titanic? Forecasting is a tricky business, and, as with that last Cameron film, analysts are wary of guessing at Avatar's future. It won't eclipse Titanic in raw ticket numbers, but there's a good chance that if Avatar can sustain its holiday-season momentum, it could be well on its way to the biggest-ever worldwide gross (unadjusted for inflation). Here are six factors that could help push the otherworldly epic into the top spot:

1. The hard part is done. It took The Dark Knight seven months to gross $1 billion worldwide. It took Titanic nearly three months. Avatar has pocketed the same amount in a cool 17 days. The market pressure to release a film on DVD means movies aren't in theaters for seven to eight months anymore, as Titanic was. In Avatar's case, it doesn't need that much time: the heavy lifting is done, and after a scorching three-week kickoff, there's just (just!) over $800 million to go to beat Titanic's record.

2. It's competing against itself. January is historically the dumping ground for the year's weakest films, and this year looks to be no different: where December had strong commercial fare like Alvin and the Chipmunks: the Squeakquel and Sherlock Holmes, January will average only three wide releases per weekend and boasts only one ballyhooed release (The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington). Titanic capitalized on the same January doldrums by roaring past the 1997 holidays to earn most of its cash in 1998. Then again, if you're operating on as much momentum as Avatar is, "competition can be overrated," says Brandon Gray, president and publisher of The film has established itself as a must-see, and "at this point, people who are going to see Avatar are going to see Avatar and would even if the slate was strong," Gray argues. The biggest threat to Avatar's lead could be when it has to cede 3-D screens to the next 3-D blockbuster, March's Alice in Wonderland.

3. Marketing the "novelty factor" has succeeded. The water-cooler wisdom you've probably heard about Avatar hits at the core of its marketing success: If you want to see this movie, you must see it in a theater. Fox positioned the film as a cinematic event, enticing audiences typically turned off by fantasy or science-fiction films by emphasizing the spectacle and majesty of it all. Call it Netflix proofing: "It's really hard to sell the idea that you can have the same experience at home," says David Mumpower, an analyst at "Avatar faced expectations as unreasonable as there are, and it met them. That made it a near-impossible triumph that people suddenly wanted to see."

4. The Oscars bring the heat. The buzz around a film historically heats up through the Academy Award countdown, and Avatar is a near lock to be nominated. Last year, three of the five best-picture nominees saw their domestic per-theater gross increase the weekend after they were nominated, and Slumdog Millionaire saw its domestic per-theater take jump on the weekend after it won the Oscar. For Avatar, nods from the Academy could lure in skeptical holdouts and repeat viewers.

5. There's a whole world out there. Two-thirds of Titanic's haul was earned overseas, and Avatar is tracking similarly (compare that with, say, The Dark Knight, which saw a near-even split between North American tallies and what it earned around the rest of the globe). Avatar opened in 106 markets globally and was No. 1 in all of them. Markets such as Russia, where Titanic saw modest receipts in 1997 and 1998, are white-hot today, analysts say, with more screens and moviegoers than ever before. Avatar stands poised to reap the benefits, and it has already dotted the globe with box-office records.

6. Premium ticket prices. Movies in 3-D took in $1.3 billion in 2009, according to Variety, a threefold increase over 2008 and more than 10 percent of the total 2009 box-office gross. The increased ticket price—an average of $2 to $3 per ticket in most markets—will undoubtedly help pad Avatar's coffers.

None of the above explanations, however, will diminish Avatar's accomplishment as a (potential) top grosser. "What makes Avatar remarkable is that it has no basis in previously established material," Gray says. The movie might be derivative of many movies in its story and themes, but it had no direct antecedent like the other top-grossing films: Titanic (historical events), the Star Wars movies (an established film franchise), or The Lord of the Rings (literature). It was a tougher sell, which makes its achievement more impressive.