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Can Avatar Defy the Odds and Succeed?

Half a billion dollars. That’s what current estimates (though IMDB estimates are closer to $230M) are putting the budget of James Cameron’s new science fiction epic just north of (and I’ve long heard rumors of an even higher number). The resulting firestorm of head-scratching and navel-gazing was to be expected. Blogs everywhere have fired up, questioning the logic of making a film so expensive. And if I were a betting man, I’d put money on the fact that James Cameron is laughing his a** off over all of it. After all, it was articles like these that littered the pages of magazines and the trades 12 years ago, heralding the release of THE MOST EXPENSIVE MOVIE EVER MADE! A MOVIE SO LARGE IT MIGHT NEVER RECOUP ITS BUDGET! As in the $200 million gamble that was Titanic.

Yeah, Cameron’s been down this road before. He’s directed a handful of the most expensive films ever made, all of which profited and most of which are considered modern classics. And what Cameron is doing here is nothing short of completely redefining the way we watch movies. While it’s easy for folks to point to a nearly incomprehensible number like half a billion and compare it to the average domestic box office, things become decidedly different when you start working in all the historical factors, all of which come down on Cameron’s side.
 
First of all, the movie is a brand-spanking-new technology. This isn’t a 3-D movie; it is a fully immersive 3-D movie. You’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve seen 25 minutes of the movie and it turned an audience full of skeptics and nonbelievers into raving, excited fanboys dying to see the rest of the movie. The characters in the foreground of the film aren’t what make your eyes pop out of your head but rather the waterfalls in the background, the forest the camera weaves through, and the rock walls that whizz past your head as you soar on the back of flying, alien dinosaurs. This is a film that people will discuss and need to see for themselves, because it is an experience that can only be had – and duplicated – in a movie theater. Piracy can’t hurt this one because you can’t pirate a 3-D image. It just doesn’t record.
 
Secondly, it is a PG-13 science fiction epic. Transformers – one of the dumbest, gleefully offensive, plothole-ridden messes of the summer – scored a whopping $400 million in the U.S. alone, with a total of $833 million worldwide. That’s with zero 3-D and a ton of summer competition. People love big, loud science fiction, and Avatar is a movie made by the guy who makes the very best of big, loud science fiction. Also, and most importantly, it is a genre epic being released in the same slot once occupied by Lord of the Rings and the first Narnia film. The Christmas season brings families together, and families love watching big, sweeping fantasy stories over the holidays. Each of those films brought in between $750 million and $1 billion.
 
No, this isn’t a gamble; it is a well-positioned, strategic release. The only way this film will fail is if it proves to be terrible, and even then it needs to be terrible AND boring. Well, what I’ve seen and what we’ve been hearing leads us to believe that neither is possible is the case. Expect a lot of backtracking stories about the early doubts once this begins raking in dump trucks full of cash. This is all but a sure thing. The most expensive sure thing ever made, certainly, but a sure thing nonetheless.

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