Avatar passed the $1 billion in global ticket sales mark only three weeks into release. Pretty damn impressive by any standard. What is the big secret here, the $150 million marketing budget or the amazing word-of-mouth generated by the movie experience?

If you look at movie marketing, many major financial successes are the result of major marketing pushes. But the formula does not always hold. Paranormal Activity was the latest success story in the no-budget, word-of-mouth social media camp to blow the doors off. Made originally for $15,000 – including $500 payments for the two leads – the movie has now grossed an estimated $141,000,000 worldwide as of January 1, 2010. Other box office smashes in the low budget category are The Blair Witch Project, made for $60,000 with $249,000,000 in receipts worldwide, and Napoleon Dynamite with $46,000,000 in receipts on a $400,000 production budget.

Avatar, by comparison cost a reported $400,000,000 to make and market. Of the $1.018 billion in ticket sales, two-thirds were from foreign sales.
Avatar is an anomaly. According to movie distributor Mark Cuban, the average film loses $8 dollars on every opening-weekend ticket sold – Avatar only lost $2 for every dollar in revenue. But here is a statistic to blow your marketing mind: Avatar opened with an average take of $22,313 per theater, and Paranormal Activity – with its tiny budget – averaged $25,813 per theater the two weekends before Halloween.

The financial success of a film is almost always about the quality of the movie, good reviews, buzz, viral, W-O-M, PR, and a whole slew of non-traditional (read non-paid) media. In other words, a holistic marketing approach, the stuff many traditional ad agencies hate.

So back to the original question. Was it mass marketing or W-O-M? Let’s hear what you think.

Other trivia:
Highest ever: Titanic ($1.8 billion, of which 67% was international)
Highest for an ‘R’ rated film: Passion of Christ ($612,000,000, 40% international)