REUTERS

REUTERS

By this time next week, James Cameron should have the two highest-grossing films in history.

The amazing feat for Cameron, his Lightstorm Entertainment production shingle and Avatar -- which has topped $1 billion worldwide -- follows the filmmaker's success in 1997-98 with Titanic, the top-grossing picture ever. Fox is handling worldwide distribution on Avatar after partnering with Paramount for the release of Titanic.

Like that film, Avatar is ringing up far more foreign revenues than in the United States and Canada. In fact, the pricey picture only now is poised to crack the list of top 10 all-time domestic grossers.

It doesn't matter where we are domestically, said Jon Landau, Cameron's producing partner at Lightstorm. The movie business has become an international business. When you release movies, you have to figure out whether the movies will play internationally.

Landau deflected a question about how high Avatar could fly by recalling the comment of one-time Fox distribution executive Tom Sherak, now president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It depends how many people go to see it, Landau deadpanned.

Meanwhile, even executives at rival studios seem to be getting a kick out of the mind-bending performance of Fox's motion-capture/live-action 3-D blockbuster, and Landau said he knows why.

It shows the potential of the industry, he said. It shows people want to go to the movies.

The eventual rise of Avatar to the silver-medal position among all-time global grosses will see the December 18 opener blow past two pictures still ahead in the pecking order. Coming off the weekend with $1 billion and counting, Avatar in coming days will rise above 2006's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest ($1.07 billion) and then 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ($1.12 billion).

It's not a likelihood -- it's just a question of when, mused one industry observer.

On the other hand, few would suggest Avatar has any chance of outdistancing Titanic, which registered $1.84 billion during the course of its months-long theatrical cruise.

Still, Avatar any day now should also replace Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith ($380.3 million) as the 10th-highest-grossing film in domestic box office history. Through Sunday, the film had socked away $352.1 million in North America.

The 2-1/2-hour epic has fetched far more in foreign lucre at an incredible $676.9 million. Action films tend to outperform overseas, but the outsized international tally for Avatar also reflects the growing opportunity for film releasing worldwide.

There are markets in the international marketplace that are just emerging as cinematic forces, Landau said. Take Russia, for example. Russia has more screens now than they did six months ago, and 'Avatar' is able to capitalize on that. Moviegoers are craving films that they didn't get to see before, to go to the movie theater and escape. Cinemas just didn't exist in many of their hometowns 10 years ago.