'Avatar' Eclipses 'Titanic' to Become Top Box Office Earner

Four reasons James Cameron's epic films became epic hits.

January 26, 2010, 4:27 AM

Jan. 26, 2010 — -- "Avatar" is getting a little scary.

Not the movie itself -- which, if you haven't seen, means you're either wholly immune to peer pressure and/or uninterested in wearing flimsy frames to watch blue creatures run around for nearly three hours -- but its success, its astonishing success, is a little scary.

"Avatar" surpassed "Titanic" to become the highest-grossing movie worldwide ever, film distributor 20th Century Fox announced Tuesday.

The worldwide total for the James Cameron movie stood at $1.859 billion after Monday's sales, beating the $1.843 billion haul pulled in by the other James Cameron movie, "Titanic," in 1997-1998, according to Reuters. (Of course, it bears noting that if inflation were taken into account, "Titanic's" haul would total $2.4 billion in today's dollars.)

Earlier this month, "Avatar" soared past "Star Wars" to become the No. 3 movie of all time at the North American box office. It's success has now sunk "Titanic" faster than that enormous iceberg.

Yes, the higher-than-usual ticket price movie goers pay to see "Avatar" in its full 3D and/or IMAX glory factors into its monetary success, but that doesn't explain why the film has ingrained itself in the zeitgeist. What is it about these two Cameron films that make them not only so profitable, but also so powerful in pop culture?

We have a few thoughts. Below, ABCNews.com's entirely unscientific list of four reasons why "Avatar" and "Titanic" became such mega hits.

1. The 'Can't Miss' Quotient

When Cameron put together the on-screen dream team of Leonardio DiCaprio and Kate Winslet for "Titanic," he made teenage girls' hearts the world over flutter so fast, he nearly shifted the gulf stream.

It was 1997, DiCaprio was put-a-photo-of-him-in-your-locker hot, and Winslet was his whimsical foil -- not the Megan Fox-type sexpot that female moviegoers sometimes love to hate. Seeing them on the big screen in their big moment on that ship's big deck -- that was well worth the price of a movie ticket.

Fast forward to 2009. When Cameron revealed the technology behind "Avatar," techies and sci-fi fans just about thrust their iPhones in the air and jumped with joy about finally getting to see their 3D/CGI fantasies in real life. Wait for DVD/BlueRay and miss it in IMAX? For these folks, and many others, that's simply not an option.

Why 'Avatar,' 'Titanic' Rule the Box Office, Pop Culture

2. Cameron's Masterwork

Love him or hate him, it's hard to deny that Cameron knows how to make a movie engaging. Beyond "Titanic's" emotional roller coaster and "Avatar's" aesthetic orgy, he's crafted a collection of screen gems that have turned into classics: among them, 1984's "Terminator" and 1986's "Aliens."

Should his movies cost two to $300 million to make? Maybe not, but when he's granted that kind of budget, what he produces is, by conventional standards, pretty stunning.

3. The Triumph of Good Over Evil

Virtue trumping vice: It's not what always happens in real life, and maybe that's why so many moviegoers love to see it on screen.

In "Titanic," working class Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) wins a ticket aboard the grand ship (albeit in third-class) thanks to a lucky hand in poker. He subsequently wins the heart of well-born Rose DeWitt Bukater (Winslet), who's struggling under the thumb of her controlling fiance. Despite Dawson's untimely death following the ship's crash, in the end, their love triumphs over money and class differences.

Similarly, in "Avatar," Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) conquers stereotypes about "the other" to gain the love and trust of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Together, they destroy a corporate army attempting to crush all of planet Pandora. It's heartwarming.

4. The 'See It Again' Factor

What would make someone want to fork over another fist full of bills (or credit card swipe, as the case may be) and a few hours of precious time to see a movie they've already watched? Buzz. Lots and lots of buzz.

In 1997, with "Titanic," it was the old fashioned kind -- water cooler chatter, phone conversations, giggle-filled recaps of scenes in school hallways.

These days, with "Avatar," it's all about Twitter, Facebook and texting. According to TechCrunch, at the end of December, approximately 75-percent of all people who tweeted about "Avatar" thought the people reading their tweets should see it too. Repeat the mantra enough, and people will continue running through the revolving doors of their theaters, sending "Avatar" to heights of success previously unseen.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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