Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How did Avatar happen?

I'm not talking about the impetus, or the many years Cameron spent waiting for the technology to advance, or the long, complicated production. I'm talking phenomenon. Avatar is the highest grossing film worldwide of all-time. In the coming weeks, it will become the all-time highest domestic grosser as well, surpassing Titanic, which seemed unthinkable for over a decade and was still unthinkable even as Avatar was released. How far the film will surpass its behemoth predecessor is still unsure. It could raise the stakes by $150 million or more.

So I pose the question: how did Avatar happen? How did it climb this high? And why this movie?

There are, in my estimation, a few simple answers.

The first is easy: the movie itself. Avatar was built as the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and it has made good on its reputation. It was the most hyped film of the decade, and I say that not simply because of the intense speculation about its quality that took place over the course of 2009, but also because people have been talking about the movie for the better part of the 2000s. Cameron took over the world with Titanic in '97, then went away for...this one movie. A twelve-year absence from cinema screens for Cameron...because of this one movie. And he didn't waste away the time. He perfected live-action 3-D filmmaking. He perfected motion capture technology. He seamlessly created a vivid world. And the film is gorgeous, exciting, and powerful.

Next, there are the stats that many speculators have brought up, and the argument is more legitimate than ever as Avatar closes in on Titanic: higher ticket prices. Higher ticket prices in general, and especially the 3-D ticket prices. For the longest time I have been an opponent to that argument, since more than half the Avatar screens are 2-D, and even more international screens are 2-D. In addition, 3-D has been legitimized far before this film, and the ticket prices have always been higher. So I had dismissed the argument...but that's primarily because I never thought it would seriously threaten Titanic's gross. Now that the film is bearing down on the big ship, one cannot dismiss or deny the financial factors at play in this situation. When it comes down to it, far more people went to see Titanic than Avatar. 3-D prices are the true culprit, because even without adjusting for inflation, Avatar would not nearly be as close to Titanic's domestic gross without the up-charge for those glasses. So as a new all-time box-office leader takes its place atop the chart, one must place a slight asterisk next to the number. As the gross continues to climb -- possibly as high as $800 million domestic -- the argument will start to erode, but it will never be erased completely. The higher ticket prices are, in the end, a major factor in Avatar's ascendance.

But in my view, no single reason -- not the film's extraordinary technological innovation, not Cameron's pedigree, not even the 3-D ticket prices -- compare to the primary reason Avatar has become the money-making phenomenon of its time. That reason: release date.

In 2008, The Dark Knight became the second-highest domestic grosser of all-time and the first film to get within $100 million of Titanic's number. But in the climate in which it was released, it just wasn't feasible for the movie to reach the magic number of $600 million. Dark Knight bowed in July, in the heat of the Summer Movie Season. A new blockbuster every week, a new threat to the top of the box-office, and it still got closer to Titanic than any other film in history, up to that point. Now, there were ticket issues with that film too (IMAX mainly), but nothing like the issues with Avatar.

Avatar was released on December 18, 2009. Yeah, Sherlock Holmes followed one week later, but that was the only real blockbuster to ever enter the conversation against Cameron's behemoth. And now here we stand, in the thick of January Dump Season, when studios release most of their shelved crap because it might make enough to break even. In short, there is nothing to compete with Avatar's domination. And while the same was true of Titanic, that film ran for months....literally months. It was still at the top of the box-office in April '98 after its December '97 release. That's a stat even Avatar will never top. Titanic was one kind of phenomenon, and Avatar is another. Titanic was a phenomenon that defied the limitations of its generation; Avatar is a phenomenon that is defined by its limitless generation.

And I posit this with utmost assurance: Avatar would not become the highest all-time grosser -- domestic or worldwide -- if it were released in the summer.

Am I slinging mud or casting aspersions on the venerable Avatar legacy being formulated before our very eyes? Not at all. I have stated my respect for the film on every level -- it is the most innovative film of its time, and will be the most influential film of the new decade. Am I a Titanic apologist? Not in the slightest. I am analyzing the how's and why's of the film that, when the dust settles, will be the highest grosser ever, likely to stay atop the chart for just as long as Titanic did. The reasons why deserve to be discussed seriously.

Let's keep talking...


K McKiernan said...

See, I am confused. I had been saying all along that one huge part of Avatar's mammoth numbers was that the film was able to obtain $13.50 per ticket whereas any other film was getting far less (or even Titanic at nearly half $$$ per ticket). But you hushed me away. So, I want to know why do you cite higher ticket prices now? You said it is because it threatens (and today--just in--Avatar beats Titanic in worldwide sales) Titanic's record. So, you are only re-considering the argument now that it threatens a film you do not feel it should threaten? That seems rather illogical. It wasn't a good enough reason when it was blowing away other films. I don't get it.

K McKiernan said...

I should have said, however, that in addition to OBVIOUSLY agreeing about ticket sales (since I have been saying this since it came out), I totally agree about release date. And besides that, there is one other reason, and one you did not mention. We are conformers. Sure, the movie is technologically beautiful and Cameron paints (ha) women better than most, nah, really any other director, but ultimately, the "buzz" on the film is such (with release date guaranteeing nothing else to see) that others want to be "in on" the water cooler talk. Now, if the movie sucked, it could not maintain the "ride" in ticket sales, but the huge tide is more than the movie being good. It is certainly enjoying one large wave of popularity that has propelled it past what I think it ultimately deserves (come on, people, the writing in spots is really transparent, simple-minded, and just poorly constructed).

If this movie, with its "glom on" appeal upends the magnificently better contenders of Best Picture: Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, and Precious--all of which deserve the title of "best," well, I can't even finish the thought it enrages me so. It can take the mounds of cash, but Oscar is still about more... at least it should be!