As expected Avatar made off with the weekend box office crown thanks to a $77m three-day haul according to figures released on December 21 that delivered the highest 3D launch for a film and the highest launch for a non-sequel, original story in North American history.

Fox’s sci-fi adventure launched on 3,452 screens and beat Up’s $68.1m record for a film opening in 3D. Combined with the $165.2m international launch in 106 countires, Avatar has amassed $242.2m worldwide in its first weekend.

While the launch did not reach the mid-$80m range that some had predicted, Fox top brass and director James Cameron are quietly confident that strong word of mouth will sustain the film well into the New Year and go a considerable way towards helping the studio recoup the approximately $400m production and marketing spend.

Sony’s counter programmer Did You Hear About The Morgans? starring Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker opened fourth on $7m. Buena Vista’s The Princess And The Frog in second added $12.2m for $44.8m in its second weekend, while Warner Bros’ The Blind Side in third place continued an excellent run, adding $10m for $164.7m after five weekends.

Summit’s New Moon rounded out the top five after dropping one place in its fifth weekend on $4.4m for $274.6m. Paramount expanded Up In The Air from 72 theatres to 175 in its third weekend and the drama climbed three places to eighth on $3.1m for $8.1m. It expands wide next weekend.

The Weinstein Company launched Nine in 20th place on $247,000 from four theatres for a superb $61,750 average. Daniel Day-Lewis and Penelope Cruz lead the musical’s all-star ensemble, which includes Nicole Kidman, Judie Dench, Fergie and Kate Hudson. A Single Manin 26th place added $139,000 from nine for $471,000 after two weekends.

Apparition launched The Young Victoria with Emily Blunt in 25th place on $148,254 from 20. Apparition’s Bob Berney said the numbers were good bearing in mind “the blizzard in the East as well as general shopping and other distractions as we prepare for our wider expansion on Christmas Day [up to 150-160 theatres].”

Fox Searchlight opened Crazy Heart starring Golden Globe nominee Jeff Bridges on $84,200 from four sites.

Next weekend Fox opens Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel; Paramount expands Up In The Air wide; Universal launches It’s Complicated starring Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin; Warner Bros opens Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law; and The Weinstein Company expands Nine wide.

Estimated Top 10 North America December 18-20 2009
Film (Dist) / Est wkd gross / Est total to date

1 (-) Avatar (Fox) Fox International $77m –

2 (1) The Princess And The Frog (Buena Vista) WDSMPI $12.2m $44.8m

3 (2) The Blind Side (Warner Bros) WBPI $10m $164.7m

4 (-) Did You Hear About The Morgans? (Sony) SPRI $7m –

5 (4) The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Summit Entertainment) Summit Int’l $4.4m $274.6m

6 (3) Invictus (Warner Bros) WBPI $4.2m $15.8m

7 (5) A Christmas Carol (Buena Vista) WDSMPI $3.4m $130.8m

8 (11) Up In The Air (Paramount) PPI $3.1m $8.1m

9 (6) Brothers (Lionsgate) Mandate Int’l $2.6m $22.1m

10 (7)Old Dogs (Buena Vista) WDSMPI $2.3m $43.6m