Box-Office Crazy Glue: As Avatar tries to maintain its grip, the secret to a long hold

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Box-office pundits, including our own colleague Ben Fritz, are abuzz over the question of whether ‘Dear John’ could finally take down ‘Avatar’ at the box office this weekend, knocking the film off its No. 1 perch for the first time since it opened the week before Christmas.

To do that, the Nicholas Sparks-derived tearjerker would probably need to make at least $20 million and hope that enough Avatar-inclined men stay home in anticipation of the Peyton Manning show on Sunday; in other words, prospective filmgoers would need to opt for the man in blue over the blue men.

That’s a tall order even on Super Bowl weekend, and even as ‘Avatar’ has been in theaters for nearly two months. ‘Dear John’ simply may not be tearjerky enough -- the premiere we attended didn’t include nearly as many in the crowd reaching for Kleenexes as you might have expected -- and Sparks has a tendency toward solid but not overwhelming numbers his first frame out. (The last three films based on his books all opened remarkably close to one another, in the $12-million to $14-million range.)

But ‘Avatar’s’ uncanny knack for avoiding drops comes from more than just its ability to squash lesser films in its path (particularly the lesser films of January and February). It’s something inherent to the movie and, indeed, to all movies with more staying power than the guy in the Cialis commercial. ‘Twilight’ and ‘Transformers’ may be cultural phenomena, able to attract 8 million or 9 million people in a single stroke. But the long hold requires a more subtle skill: the ability to stay in the public consciousness long enough to roust people who never thought they’d want to see your movie -- marketing by attrition, in a way -- or luring those who’ve seen it before to come out again. You need, in other words, a profound ability to renew yourself.


A look back at the films that have managed to do this -- all but one released before the start of the big-opening/quick-drop era of the 1990s (that one exception was, of course, ‘Titanic,’ the king of the long hold) shows a telling pattern. Of the top 10 holds in movie history, several films -- ‘Back to the Future,’ ‘E.T,’ ‘Fatal Attraction’ --are particular types of cultural conversation pieces that come along just a couple times in a generation, and are going to do repeat business just by dint of their place in the zeitgeist.

But most of the others are not nearly as distinctive, more like movies everyone enjoyed but few would deem groundbreaking. They do all share something, else, though: nearly all combine several distinct and unlikely genres.
‘Ghostbusters,’ for instance (which held for 10 consecutive weeks) is a supernatural adventure with a ‘Saturday Night Live’ level of comedy. ‘Crocodile Dundee’ (nine weeks) is a fish-out-of-water comedy and an outback adventure. ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ (14 weeks) is a fish-out-of-water comedy that’s also a (relatively) dense police procedural. Even ‘Titanic’ combined one movie with another: Cameron-esque spectacle and a melodramatic love story (and Leonardo DiCaprio, a genre unto himself).

It’s admittedly hard to pinpoint a single overarching reason why a film will hold the top spot for months. But given these examples, it’s also clear that when you have one movie that’s really two, you may also have a film that will be flocked to by one audience and then quietly, over time, discovered by another.

In this light, Avatar’s achievement is even more surprising,since it’s really only trying to be one thing -- an action epic (that love story isn’t exactly ‘Gone With the Wind).’ But it does bring a second element -- only it’s not narrative, but technological. Most people buying tickets to the Cameron-fest at this late date may not have been initially interested but are coming out because they want to see if the film really looks as good or as different as everyone says it does. Or, as the anecdotal reports are suggesting, they’ve seen it, but they want to see it again in a different format. Sometimes it’s good to have comedy to go along with your action. And sometimes it’s just good to have some cool-looking blue people.

-- Steven Zeitchik