Why the hype surrounding Avatar? For starters, this is director James Cameron’s first full-length motion picture since a certain small 1997 movie titled Titanic. You might have heard about it . . .

Titanic went on to become the biggest box office hit in all history, crossing the magical one-billion dollar mark in box office earnings – a feat which no Hollywood movie have been able to accomplish until The Dark Knight broke the billion dollar mark eleven years later to become the # 2 hit movie of all time. What makes Titanic’s accomplishment so remarkable though is that when takes into account inflation: when Dark Knight hit cinemas tickets were more expensive and a billion dollars wasn’t exactly what it used to be a decade ago . . .

What is often forgotten is that Titanic’s box office took everyone by surprise. The movie was hugely expensive to make thanks to director Cameron’s legendary perfectionism. (He even took a submersible to film actual footage of the sunken ship itself fer crying  out loud!) It featured ground-breaking effects (for its day) and thanks to the hazards of filming in a huge water tank in Mexico went wildly over budget. (Final budget was an estimated $200 million, which was huge for the time. Two years later George Lucas made The Phantom Menace, which arguably had more special effects and sets than a single sinking ship, for slightly more than half the budget, namely $115 million.)

Titanic featured no major stars (no, Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t a star right then) and wasn’t part of an established franchise or anything. Yet it became a certifiable phenomenon. Strong word of mouth insured that the film stayed at the number one spot at the US box office for fifteen weeks! (That’s about fourteen weeks longer than GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra for instance.)

"Avatar has more in common with Titanic than just its director . . ."

Box office observers remarked that the movie did so well because of teenaged girls – a previously overlooked demographic in a Hollywood where teenaged boys are the Holy Grail when it comes to expensive special effects summer blockbusters – who rewatched the movie endlessly. DiCaprio’s boyish non-threatening teen throb looks, healthy wallops of Mills & Boons sentiment and Celine Dion’s warbling on the theme song proved to be an irresistible combination when it came to this particular demographic.

Avatar’s poster art work may market the film as by “the director of Titanic,” but the movie is in fact aimed at altogether different demographic group, namely the male audiences who made Cameron’s previous science fiction action efforts such huge influential hits, namely The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). These iconic hits – a Holy Trilogy of sorts - aside, the 55-year-old director’s output has been spottier. His underappreciated underwater 1989 epic The Abyss failed to set the box office alight and his 1994 spy-actioner True Lies may have done well at the box office, but that was largely thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger who was at the height of his popularity right then. It simply wasn’t the sort of innovative effort die-hard fans expected of the bearded one.

Most fans in this demographic probably cringed at the schmaltz in Titanic even though they still went to see the film out of loyalty. For them the question is, will Cameron make another huge, innovative science fiction film like he did back in 1991 with T2? For Fox, the studio behind Avatar the question is much simpler: will Avatar make back its money? Splurging millions of dollars on the director of the most popular movie of all time may seem like no-brainer, but things simply aren’t that simple. Avatar may have a lot in common with Titanic, but its success isn’t guaranteed at all . . .

Avatar has more in common with Titanic than just its director. For starters, Avatar is hugely expensive even though it actually cost less than Titanic. Luckily inflation didn’t get to Cameron: Avatar actually cost $10 million less than Titanic. But $190 million is still a hefty amount of pocket change even in spendthrift Hollywood. Dark Knight cost $185 million to make and G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra cost $170 million. However unlike these big budget blockbusters Avatar has its work cut out for it when it comes to attracting audiences. It comes with no marketable pre-branding: it isn’t based on a hugely popular and recognizable comic book character (Batman, Spider-man) nor is it based on a popular toy range (G.I. Joe, Transformers). It isn’t based on a best-seller or popular videogame, doesn’t feature a big star nor is a remake of a well-known movie or television series.


Next: "For Hollywood marketing folks Avatar is a nightmare!"




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