‘Avatar’ opening weekend could flake out

After surmounting technological hurdles, and with an investment of about $430 million at stake, “Avatar” may have met an obstacle it can’t overcome: snow.

According to people following ticket sales, the highly anticipated 3-D science fiction epic film was on course to gross between $25 million and $30 million Friday alone.

That would put the James Cameron-directed movie on a path to hit roughly $80 million in ticket sales by Sunday, which is in line with projections based on public surveys going into the weekend.

However, a major snowstorm has been predicted for the East Coast on Saturday. Heavy snowfall could stop people from leaving the house to go to movies, knocking at least several million dollars off the weekend tally for “Avatar.”

Ticket sales for midnight screenings Thursday night, when the movie opened, were a modest $3.5 million, according to distributor 20th Century Fox. That’s nowhere close to the $20-million-plus records set this year by “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” and “The Twilight Saga: New Moon.”

The fact that a relatively small number of Cameron devotees turned out late at night to see the movie is a sign that “Avatar” grosses won’t be driven by an initial burst of rabid fanboy activity, which for pictures such as “New Moon” has been followed by fast-falling ticket sales. Instead, “Avatar” will rely on marketing and word of mouth that, if strong, could see the picture play well through the holidays and into the new year.

The vast majority of first-day business for “Avatar” is being driven by 3-D screens, according to Fox. About 65% of midnight show ticket sales came from standard digital 3-D screens, and nearly 20% more was from giant-size Imax 3-D screens, both of which charge premiums for ticket prices.

That’s a very good sign for Fox, as Cameron used pricey new 3-D technology to create the movie, and much of the promotion has focused on it.

The studio and its financing partners, Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners, need a big opening and a long run to turn “Avatar” into a success, as they spent $310 million to produce the picture, a figure brought down to about $280 million after tax credits.

In addition, Fox is spending about $150 million on worldwide marketing and distribution.