'Gravity' Box Office: Is This Movie the Next 'Avatar'?

The fall movie season is just starting, and we already have a breakout hit. Gravity's box office tally stands at $129 million after just 11 days, a total Time Warner's  (NYSE: TWX  ) Warner Bros must be ecstatic about. That box office figure by itself won't shatter any records. For example, The Avengers made $381 million at the domestic box office across its first 11 days. 

But Gravity shares similarities to Avatar, a movie that had an opening weekend box office far from Hollywood's biggest blockbusters, but rode stunning visuals and positive word of mouth to a prolonged run of huge weekends. By the time it left theaters, Avatar was the highest grossing film in movie history. 

While Gravity won't break Avatar's all-time box office record, it is set to follow the same strategy and become Hollywood's most intriguing film of 2013. Also, it has ignited talk of whether or not 3D film-making can make a comeback. 

3D goes mainstream

Avatar's success is credited for kick-starting 3D cinema. The movie wasn't the first to use 3D -- the technology began seeing traction in 2006 -- but it established 3D movies as a force.

The table below shows just how powerful Avatar's effect was on the 3D box office. Keep in mind that Avatar was released in late 2009. 

Domestic Box Office
Year 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Total Box Office (Billions)  $9.6 $9.6 $10.6  $10.6  $10.2 
3D Box Office (Billions) $0.1  $0.2  $1.1  $2.2  $1.8 

Source: Motion Picture Association of America

The Avatar effect is unmistakable; 3D box office explodes in the year of its release, then doubles in 2010 as Avatar stays in theaters and other movies make hasty 3D conversions. 

Yet, by 2011, with Avatar out of theaters and other films converting to 3D in post-production as an afterthought, consumers grew tired of the technology. Avatar was such an outsized sensation because not was it a great movie, it was produced with 3D in mind from the start. 

The trend of 3D disillusionment is pretty stark. While Avatar saw 71% of its opening weekend box office gross come from 3D screenings, blockbusters in 3D this year were well behind. World War Z saw just 34% of its opening weekend sales come from 3D.

Or, look at Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) Pixar films. In 2010, Toy Story 3 opened with 60% of its opening weekend gross in 3D. This past summer, Pixar's Monsters University saw its opening weekend gross at just 31% of total box office. That's an interesting apples-to-apples comparison -- there is no real difference between Toy Story and Monster University's use of 3D. The difference is moviegoers tiring of the format and seeing little reason to pay up for 3D showings. 

Gravity to the 3D rescue?

When it opened two weekends ago, Gravity broke the downward slide of 3D box office declines emphatically. Its opening weekend was estimated at 84% of all box office grosses coming from 3D showings, a figure that bested even Avatar. 

What was behind Gravity's monster showing? Again, we have a movie created with something visually stunning in mind, the kind of film where 3D is an enhancement rather than an afterthought. 

James Cameron, the director behind Avatar, called Gravity the "best space photography ever done." But of course he loves Gravity, it's a film with a history painstakingly similar to Avatar. 

A making just like Avatar

How difficult and ahead of their times were Gravity and AvatarVariety relays a story where Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron was told it'd take 5 years before the required technology to film Gravity would be available. That advice was right -- it took 4 1/2 years -- but Cuaron was stubborn and stuck with the movie in spite of it being dropped by Universal amid concerns the movie would prove too expensive. He overcame every obstacle in his path, finding a new studio to back the film, and creating a custom LED "light box" to bring his vision to theaters.

That's a tale eerily similar to Avatar. James Cameron wanted to make the film after Titanic finished filming, but the technology required was more than a half decade away. It wasn't until late 2005 that filmmaking technology had progressed far enough that Cameron could begin work on Avatar. Even with technology advances, the movie took a reported $300 million to produce, and Cameron had to shop the film around after distributor, 20th Century Fox, grew concerned that Avatar would prove impossible to create and too expensive. 

Word of mouth drives huge results 

Beyond both being films that overcame huge technical hurdles to become marvels of 3D cinema, Gravity and Avatar share similarities at the box office. 

Let's look at a comparison between Avatar, Gravity, and The Avengers in their first two weeks. 

Movie First Weekend Second Weekend % Drop Final Box OfficeTotal
Avatar $77 million $76 million -2% $761 million
Gravity $56 million $43 million -23% TBD
The Avengers  $207 million $103 million -50% $623 million

Both Avatar and Gravity opened outside the summer blockbuster season. Both had smaller opening weekends, but extremely solid holds in their second weekend. Both are unique films that encourage moviegoers to see them before they leave cinemas. All of these factors contribute to a long run where each film earns high multiples over their opening weekend gross relative to a movie like The Avengers. 

Avatar's insane final box office total was partially a function of how little competition it faced. It largely owned 3D screen for nearly three months until Alice in Wonderland was released in early March 2010. 

Gravity would won't be so lucky. Avatar came out when 3D wasn't as popular; only 20 films were released in 3D in 2009. Last year, the number was 38. Also, it came out at the end of the winter movie season instead of the fall, giving it a long run of little competition. In Gravity's case, it'll have a strong hold over 3D screens through October, but Thor: The Dark World will move into theaters on Nov. 8, limiting Gravity's 3D monopoly to about a month. 

Can any films build on Gravity's 3D momentum?

Gravity not being able to live up to Avatar's box office record isn't the point. Movies like Avatar are a once in a decade phenomenon. The more important point is that a critically beloved movie about one woman's isolated survival in space, a movie bereft of aliens or the usual blockbuster themes of space movies, is the first real must see 3D movie since Avatar hit the scene four years ago. 

Gravity could finish 2013 as the third highest grossing film in the calendar year at the domestic box office, finishing with over $300 million in box office receipts. What's interesting is that 3D is a huge draw overseas; Avatar collected more than 70% of its box office internationally. Gravity has opened in select international markets, but has plenty of expansion remaining. The movie doesn't  even open in the United Kingdom until Nov. 8. With 3D holding stronger in international markets, its biggest payday could be yet to come.

With every passing day, Gravity  is building momentum , becoming a cultural sensation. Like Avatar, it's becoming a movie that defines the year in cinema. 

The temptation will be to look at Gravity's box office totals and predict that 3D has made a return. The problem is that Gravity, like Avatar before it, is a movie that took tremendous risks to create a truly unique film experience. 3D has been dying because its a largely risk-less endeavor. Studios can pay $10 million to $20 million to convert their movies to 3D and make added hundreds of millions thanks to the higher ticket prices of 3D movies. 

Recreating the success of Avatar or Gravity will take some guts, some risks. That's something that is in short supply in Hollywood, even after Gravity becomes the box office sensation of 2013. 

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Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 16, 2013, at 3:26 AM, delfra wrote:

    I think your over exaggerating "Gravity's' box office potential there buddy. Yes it's already on it's way to being a huge hit, but that momentum is going to slow down dramatically in November when the likes of "Ender's Game", "Thor: The Dark World", "Catching Fire" & "Frozen" hits, no matter how much you might be overhyped about it right now. Will it reach 200 million domestically certainly, 250 million maybe, 300 million unlikely, I don't see it. And you think it's going to finish as the 3rd biggest domestic hit of the year behind "IM3" & "Despicable Me 2", what about "Catching Fire", that's projected to make between 350-400 million domestically and I can tell you right now "Gravity" won't be reaching near those numbers, i'll bet you money on that. It might end up being one of the 5-7 biggest domestics hits of the year, i'll give you that.

  • Report this Comment On October 16, 2013, at 7:12 AM, TMFRhino wrote:

    Hey delfra,

    Thanks for reading... Two things

    1.) I'll more than concede my $300 million is pretty aggressive. It's partially a "gut feel" based upon some strong holds. The movie should have about ~$145 headed into this weekend though, which another strong hold could leave at around $180 million. If that's the case, some of the "stretch" numbers start looking more achievable since its a film that doesn't really fit into the usual box office trajectory.

    2.) I could have clarified this better, but when I said that 2013 phrase I was thinking about in calendar 2013 to hedge out later releases in the winter.... But, looking at the calendar again, you're right Catching Fire could very well pass it up and that could prove to be wrong. Right now, it'd take about $291 million at the box office to get in third position. That's a good point though, and I'll go back and clarify that sentence.

    Thanks for reading!


  • Report this Comment On October 16, 2013, at 8:02 AM, CluckChicken wrote:

    I think Gravity does well in 3D because unlike the vast majority of 3D movies the 3D is used as an environmental tool and not part of the story. A better way to say it may be that 3D should be used to project a feeling rather than a visual.

  • Report this Comment On October 16, 2013, at 8:58 AM, honeybunn123 wrote:

    Tell me why gravity is a good movie. and I will tell you why it is not. Number one gravity has no plot. What is so good about Sandra bullock floating in space during the entire movie? George Clooney was out before he came into the movie. what acting did Sandra Bullock do? she made more sounds than words. Why are so many people complaining about falling off to sleep because the movie was boring. why are so many people wanting their money back. Why are you critics pushing this movie. The box office results are good because people are curious.

  • Report this Comment On October 16, 2013, at 9:11 AM, honeybunn123 wrote:

    I just want to say that gravity comes no where near being the next avatar movie.

    avatar was a good movie and gravity is a product of false advertisement. Hollywood is bias when it come to Sandra bullock and George Clooney. In the eye site of Hollywood these two cant make a bad movie. Well gravity is the worst movie that they have made. I am tired of the lies put out by the critics. This movie is BS. It has succeeded because of the special effects,3d, and sound. that is it.

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