This holiday weekend, after over-indulging in much food and beverage and spending perhaps just a little more time with your family and friends than you can handle, many of you will partake in that most American of traditions: escaping to the multiplex. Sitting in a darkened movie theater and worshipping the big screen is a religion that unites us all. But what movie should you go see? Do not fear, because every year at this time Hollywood puts more cinematic gifts under your Christmas tree (or Hannukah Bush) than at any other time of year (outside of the big summer movie season, of course, but these are Oscar bait). Kids are out of school, offices are closed and the movie theaters are packed. So at a time when there are 10-plus new films opening in wide release in movie theaters over a 2 week span, how does a movie-goer determine what is the must-see film to put at the top of his or her list? It’s all about the buzz.
The film to beat at the box office during the last days of 2009 is a little film called Avatar, written and directed by self-proclaimed ‘king of the world’, James Cameron. I think perhaps you may have heard of this movie. Ok, at this point it’s impossible not to have heard of it, the buzz around this movie over the last week has been deafening and James Cameron is once again being anointed as the second coming. (And if you’ve seen Avatar, he probably deserves it – but more on that later). So, how did this happen?
Let’s start at the beginning. Avatar has literally been in the works for over a decade. It is well-documented that Cameron first wrote a screenplay draft back in the 90’s (do you remember the 90’s?) but wasn’t able to actually begin working on the film until 4 years ago when technology finally caught up with his vision. Technology may have caught up, but not at a cost-effective price – the final reported budget for Avatar runs the gamut from $250 million to half a billion, depending on how all of the investment in the proprietary 3D technology is accounted for and amortized. Bottom line, this film cost a hell of a lot, with a reported budget more than any other film in history. And, when you think about it, we shouldn’t expect anything less from the man who gave us Titanic. But Titanic overcame a tidal wave of bad buzz associated with its huge production budget and became the #1 grossing film of all time with world-wide box office receipts in excess of $1.8 billion. Is Avatar headed for a similar destiny?
I can tell you that the early buzz on Avatar was not very promising. The first any of the general public saw of finished footage from Avatar was a 20-minute 3D presentation at Comic-Con in San Diego. Comic-Con, for those of you not familiar, is an annual convention in San Diego which used to be all about comic book nerds gathering in one place so they could try to find a mint copy of Spiderman #1, but which has now turned into the biggest buzz creator Hollywood has to offer. Each summer at Comic-Con, the studios put together lavish presentations and panels to introduce their upcoming films to eager, hard-core film fans who wait on lines for hours on end in order to gain access to these presentations. And once the presentations end, the lucky few thousand who attended and got to enjoy (or, equally important, not enjoy) a little taste of Hollywood’s next big thing take to the internet to blog and tweet all about what they saw, what they liked, what they hated, and so on…and so the buzz begins.
In the case of Avatar, the initial buzz was just ok. And ‘just ok’ buzz usually isn’t good enough, especially when you consider that Cameron was debuting footage of his first new film in YEARS to a captive audience of film fans who worship all of his work from The Terminator and T2, to Aliens and Titanic. To say he was playing to a home crowd is an understatement. This audience was told they were going to be the first to see the next big thing, something revolutionary in fact. Yet after the 20 minutes of footage was screened, the word was simply that it looked like Cameron created a cool 3D world, and from what they could tell of the story, the movie seemed kind of pedestrian. But Cameron was convinced that screening footage from his film was the key to turning Avatar into a success. In an unprecedented event this past August, 20th Century Fox held free sneak previews, in over 100 IMAX theaters around the world, of the footage from Comic-Con, along with an introduction by James Cameron. The film was still 4 months away from a theatrical release but Cameron was convinced the best way to build the buzz for this movie was to just let people see it (and turns out he was right, but again I’m getting ahead of myself).
Unfortunately, for those of us who were not lucky enough to see the Avatar footage at Comic-Con or during the IMAX sneak preview, the first we saw of any footage was the release of the theatrical trailer in 2D. It was at this moment, the majority of us first saw the new alien world of Pandora that Cameron had created and inhabited with 10 foot tall blue aliens. The initial response to this footage was underwhelming, at best. In fact, some of the response was vicious. Trey Parker and Matt Stone savagely parodied “Avatar” in a hilarious episode of “South Park” nearly two months ago when the foul-mouthed Cartman created a movie with a very similar plot to “Avatar” named “Dancing with Smurfs”. Clearly, people were not warming up to Cameron’s big blue aliens. But then again, no one had seen the finished movie, and in the end, nothing creates good buzz better than a movie that blows your mind.
So what happened when people finally got to see the finished version of “Avatar” in 3D, the way Cameron intended it to be seen? Minds were in fact blown (Be glad this column isn’t written in 3D). It turns out that Cameron’s strategy of letting people see footage to sell the film really was a sound strategy after all. The problem was that simply letting people see 20 minutes of “out of context” footage was actually doing a disservice to the beauty of his film and the unprecedented vision of a new world that he created. To truly sell this film and create the buzz he was seeking all along, people just needed to see the final product, preferably in eye-popping IMAX 3D. I can pinpoint the moment the buzz on “Avatar” changed for me. (See my blog entry from December 10.) That’s the day the first industry reviews for Avatar were published and the word was so very, very good. “Avatar” instantly jumped to the top of my must-see list, and the positive buzz just kept taking off from there.
The film has now been playing in theaters world-wide all of five days and has already racked up total box office receipts in excess of $300 million. While the box office totals that “Titanic” racked up a dozen years ago are just not possible in this day and age dominated by movie-streaming via internet and watching blu-ray dvds in a personal home theater, based on its early performance, “Avatar” certainly looks like it may have what it takes to reach the vaunted levels of $1 billion at the world-wide box office which was last reached in 2008 by “The Dark Knight”. More surprisingly, “Avatar” has become such an across-the-board critical darling, that it is picking up some serious Oscar heat. With the Best Picture category at the Oscars expanding to 10 nominees this year, “Avatar” seems like a lock to pick up one of those Best Picture nods, and the film’s popularity may in fact attract more eyeballs to the Oscar ceremony itself (validating the very reason that the Academy sought to expand the number of Best Picture nominations to 10, to increase the TV ratings). Based on the time and effort James Cameron spent executing his vision and bringing Avatar to the screen, he is certainly worthy of an Academy Award Best Director nomination as well. However, since that category still has only five nominees, it will not be a surprise if his name is left off that list – but without a doubt, based on his accomplishment with “Avatar”, his name should remain in the conversation.
So in case you are wondering, I have seen “Avatar” in IMAX 3D. In fact, this past weekend, when I showed up to the theater an hour early anticipating that would be early enough to secure a decent seat, I found a line 150 people strong in front of me. I guess they heard the buzz too. So should you see it? It probably doesn’t even matter what I say at this point, the buzz has spoken in a strong affirmative YES. But I mean come on, this is my column, of course I’m going to tell you what I think. I found it to be a beautiful movie. Do not waste your time seeing it in anything other than 3D, and if you are lucky enough to see it in IMAX 3D, you really will experience the beauty and magic of the captivating world Cameron has created. The key triumph of this film is not its storytelling. Yes, clichés abound, and those who liken “Avatar”s plot to a retread of 50’s westerns or even “Dances with Wolves” are not very far off in their comparisons – but they are missing the point. It may be a familiar story, but it is told in a ground-breaking new way and with such magic in its creation of a completely new and fully-realized world, that it is an unforgettable movie-going experience. It is one that any true lover of cinema should experience in the theater. Home video will never do this film justice. Maybe I’ll see you at the theater when I go see it again.
If you want to share your thoughts on “Avatar” with me, you can reach me on Twitter @smarthollywood, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.