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Holiday Winners and Losers: Avatar, Sherlock Holmes, Streep, Bullock and Nine

Holiday Winners and Losers: Avatar, Sherlock Holmes, Streep, Bullock and Nine

Where are we, after the record-breaking holiday? There were many winners.

B.O. juggernaut Avatar –the fifth movie of all time to pass the $1 billion mark worldwide, with a record third-weekend gross–lifted many boats, as 3D and IMAX shows turned moviegoers away around the country. 3D proceeds accounted for about 75% of Avatar‘s North American returns. (One IMAX theater sold out 58 consecutive showings.) Filmgoers shut out of the Pandora adventure went to see other films instead.

James Cameron promised a spectacular cinema-changing experience and delivered the biggest must-see film since his last, Titanic, 12 years ago. Given Avatar‘s staggering $300-million-plus cost–those eye-popping all-CG environments, 50% of the movie, did not come cheap–the director said that the film would have to play to everyone, male and female, between 8 and 80, and so it did (even if some folks on the right perceive a leftist ant-militarist message). Repeat viewings are the primary reason why the movie is keeping such a torrid pace. Cameron knows the magic formula: adventure + romance + VFX= blockbuster.

But it’s not that simple, or everyone would be able to do it. After Titanic, Cameron bided his time, put in years of R & D on challenging 3D underwater sub expeditions, and pounced when he thought the technology was ready. He picked the VFX house that could deliver what he needed: Weta, led by Peter Jackson and Joe Letteri. What Cameron was seeking with performance capture was the humanity of the actors’ performances leeching through the CGI; he also wanted mobility for his cameras, so he that he could see his work in CG environments in real time. It made a huge difference in the immediacy and fluidity of the filmmaking. The studios are all checking out which films they should make in 3D. (Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood would have been too costly to change over.)

And while folks like to criticize his screenwriting, Cameron wrote a crafty, solid, mythical story that touched him, and that he knew would play wide. Cameron directed the hell out of this movie. And he cast well–remember, he found Sam Worthington, and sent him to McG for Terminator Salvation (boosting his stardom). Unlikely to grab Oscar attention, Avatar stars Sam Worthington (Clash of the Titans) and Zoe Saldana (Death at a Funeral) are rising stars.

Even without acting noms, Avatar is well-positioned for the Oscar race. Because many Academy branches are biased toward live-action and against what they consider “animation,” even though CG environments and motion capture are huge components of most big-budget movies now, Avatar won’t come close to Titanic’s 14 Oscar nominations. It will be more like six to nine noms–cinematography, art direction, song, script and acting noms look iffy. But even if Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow–who scored big with the National Society of Film Critics on Sunday— wins best director, Avatar is still the one to beat for best picture.

James Cameron is God again. But he will have to deliver some Avatar sequels to Fox.

The movie business isn’t for sissies and Twentieth Century Fox co-chairs Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos deserve due credit for having the balls to make Avatar at all. They both lived through Titanic (with ex-boss Bill Mechanic) and had good reason to believe in Cameron. But Avatar was the sort of gamble most studios are afraid to make anymore: original, not pre-sold, no stars, sci-fi. They covered their bets with outside partners, but still. And they’re also collecting handsome gains on another holiday hit: the squeakquel Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Warner Bros. successfully launched a new franchise with Sherlock Holmes, which also boosts the exploding stardom of Robert Downey, Jr. and helps Jude Law, too, more than Rachel McAdams, although it doesn’t hurt to be in a blockbuster. Of the many producers listed on this movie, Lionel Wigram collects more credit for Holmes than Joel Silver, who desperately needed this hit, but believed in Guy Ritchie, who is now out of movie jail. The lavishly appointed picture could score some technical Oscar noms.

Sony Pictures Classics played its holiday hand quite well, opening limited runs of White Ribbon and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to strong numbers. Heath Ledger/Colin Farrell/Jude Law/Johnny Depp curiosity may be fueling initial interest in the Terry Gilliam film, but it’s also entertaining, visually arresting and accessible. Many Academy members admire German Oscar submission White Ribbon, which looks likely to land a foreign Oscar slot as well as a cinematography nomination for National Film Society winner Christian Berger. And the Academy directors are capable of throwing someone like Ribbon director Michael Haneke into the mix. While Sony is lobbying for Christopher Plummer to land a best actor nod for Parnassus, the film will likely strengthen his shot at a supporting nomination for The Last Station instead.

Alcon’s heart-tugger The Blind Side continued its torrid pace, passing $200 million domestic. Again, an indie-funded movie that the studios passed on went all the way. And for the first time a femme star carried a movie past the $200-million mark. Sandra Bullock’s stock and price have gone up. She’s the rare romantic comedienne who is growing older gracefully while able to play character roles. That, believe it or not, is what Meryl Streep has always done, and it’s why she has survived: no plastic surgery, no fakery. Honest acting is the best revenge. Both stars’ two hits this year will help them to land Oscar nominations. Bullock’s first hit The Proposal will help her to win a nom for The Blind Side, while Streep’s It’s Complicated will help her to score for Julie & Julia. She could win her first Oscar since 1983.

While Nancy Meyers is an acquired taste for some, she writes, directs and controls her personal comedies. It’s Complicated, which has grossed almost $60 million, has obviously worked with audiences and may win a Golden Globe, too. Universal gains a much-needed hit, and Meyers could win an original screenplay nom. Oscar telecast co-host Alec Baldwin comes out ahead too: he is now a long-shot for a supporting nomination.

The biggest loser of the holiday box office is Rob Marshall’s Nine. Now we see why he wants to take the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. After the double whammy of Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine, he could use a commercial hit. While I enjoyed Nine‘s shallow pleasures, I recognized that it would never play for a wide audience. Like Me and Orson Welles, its target was narrow and cinephile. The Weinsteins never should have made the film on such a budget (officially, $64 million, but it’s more like $80). They banked on Marshall’s heat to line up a bevy of belles and Oscar-winner Daniel Day Lewis and took that starry, costly, imitation Chicago route. Based on a hit Broadway musical that is not widely known by the American public, Nine is clever and fun, but aside from Marion Cotillard and Judi Dench, offered no characters that audiences could hang on to. The story begins frolicsome but takes a dark, ponderous direction. While Nine nabbed early support from the Golden Globes, its Oscar fate has been seriously damaged by both critics’ drubbing and bad box office. Penelope Cruz no longer looks like a lock for a supporting actress nom. A few technical nods are its next best hope. The movie has earned $14 million to date.

With The Princess and the Frog, Disney Pixar chief John Lasseter wanted to prove that 2D animation was alive and well. And that audiences would embrace the studio’s first black princess. And Bob Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol should have scored over the holiday, but lost 3D screens to Avatar and stumbled to $137 million domestically. Both got creamed by the Christmas competition. Luckily the Zemeckis 3D feature delighted audiences around the world ($181 million), but The Princess and the Frog, with foreign numbers at about half its domestic gross of $86 million after four weeks (with more overseas markets still to come), may not be so lucky.

Several modest holiday performers such as Invictus and Up in the Air are hanging onto screens in hopes that an awards season push will give them extra staying power.

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