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Modern Warfare 2 joins 'Avatar' in ultra-elite $1 billion club

It's worth celebrating that two separate entertainment properties have crossed into ten-figure territory, even as the economy struggles to emerge from recession.

Activision Blizzard said Wednesday that its hit game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, has passed $1 billion in sales. Activision Blizzard

For an entertainment property to hit $1 billion in sales is a very rare feat. For two separate properties to pass the 10-figure mark at the same time may well be a first.

On Wednesday, Activision Blizzard announced that its mega-hit video game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, had crossed the billion-dollar mark, after just two months on store shelves--and the entertainment industry's single-day sales record. That milestone came shortly after it was announced that James Cameron's uber-blockbuster movie, "Avatar," had also reached that financial promised land.

To be sure, these are just round numbers, and don't have any formal meaning, but there's no arguing with the fact that it sure sounds good for the entertainment business to be sporting two separate billion-dollar titles at the same time, especially since they come from such different corners of the world.

In the history of video games, a billion-dollar hit is an extreme rarity. It's hard to tell precisely how many there have been, but it's possible that number is as small as two. Almost exactly a year ago, Activision Blizzard hailed its Guitar Hero III as being the first game to ever cross the billion-dollar threshold--at least as measured by retail sales. And my meanderings through Google failed to turn up another single title that has earned that much, including the much-vaunted Halo 3, or any of the seemingly endless number of Grand Theft Auto releases.

A billion dollars, of course, is a huge shot in the arm to the bottom line of a company like Activision Blizzard, and that company can now boast of having perhaps the only two 10-figure-earning games in the industry's history, as well as its ongoing hit, World of Warcraft, which is said to earn as much as a billion dollars a year in subscription fees.

And the news of Modern Warfare 2's good fortune couldn't come at a better time for the video game industry, which has been reeling from month after month of declining sales. Industry analyst The NPD Group will be releasing its report for December sales shortly, and I don't think anyone will be surprised if sales are down, year-over-year, once again. As my colleague, CNET blogger Don Reisinger, put it, can you imagine what those sales numbers would be like without Modern Warfare 2?

James Cameron's "Avatar" also recently surpassed $1 billion in ticket sales. Fox

All of this is going on as Cameron's "Avatar" continues to draw moviegoers in droves to multiplexes around the world. I don't think you have teenage girls lining up to see the film a dozen times as they did with Cameron's previous smash, "Titanic," but there's no questioning that the $1 billion-plus earned by "Avatar" is well worth celebrating--especially if you're anyone at Fox, Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment, or any of the other stakeholders in the mammoth movie.

I suppose it's pure coincidence that "Avatar" and Modern Warfare 2 came out so close together. But given that people are carefully guarding their wallets, it's got to be worth a joyful cheer to see so many people being willing to fork over the $60 for Modern Warfare 2 or the $10 or $14 or however much it costs from city to city to see "Avatar." Clearly, people are hurting, but collectively, these sales numbers demonstrate that we're doing well enough to pour more than $2 billion into these two individual properties.

I know there will always be the impression that entertainment does better in tough economic times than other products. And I'm sure it's true. Still, it costs a bundle to go to the movies these days--imagine what a family of four spends on a trip to see "Avatar" in 3D, including popcorn, soda, parking, and whatnot. For just 162 minutes of entertainment, that's quite a bundle.

Video games, on the other hand, are seen as a much better deal, as you get dozens of hours of fun for the single $60 purchase price. Still, $60 is $60. For so many people to shell out that much cash in the middle of such tough economic times has got to be testament to Modern Warfare 2's top-notch attributes: great story-telling, excellent graphics, fun multiplayer action. So again, I think it's worth paying special attention to the fact that Cameron and Activision Blizzard have both managed to create products at the same time that have crossed into such rare territory.

Will we see such a confluence again? It's hard to imagine we won't, but given how rare it is for any film or video game to pass $1 billion in sales, I'd say it will be a long time.