Catch James Cameron talking about Avatar on 60 Minutes last night? I thought it was awfully sporting of Viacom to throw some publicity at a movie it doesn't appear to have any stake in for once. Cameron, as usual, exuded confidence about the project. He explained his desire to make the film since his days as an adolescent nerd and described the necessity of waiting until motion-capture and computer technology had caught up with his vision. A 25-minute clip of the movie was shown at this year's San Diego Comic-Con, to rave reviews. And it's set to be released December 18 in 2D, 3D, and 3D IMAX.
And yet there's the faintest hint of desperation on the wind, is there not? The advertising blitz has bordered on excessive, with a deluge of commercials and extended "sneak peaks" airing during your favorite quality Fox TV shows for the last couple of months. Movie bloggers and entertainment journalists have been keeping the buzz going steadily, and this will only increase now that they don't have to cover New Moon 24-7, but a few things continue to ping our failure sonar.
For starters, the story doesn't sound that compelling: a man enters a strange society and grows to accept and be accepted by those he once regarded as the enemy? Minus the flying dinosaur monsters and blue-skinned ladies, this is basically Dances With Wolves, or A Man Called Horse, or Footloose. Cameron himself has said as much, which is fine. Hollywood thrives on theft, but when you're making a movie that's supposed to revolutionize the industry, shouldn't the plot be something we haven't seen a dozen times before?
Remember Titanic? Big boat...iceberg...Kate Winslet topless. It was Cameron's last movie and -- at the time -- the most expensive film ever made, with a budget of $200 million. It grossed three times that domestically (and almost $2 billion worldwide), thanks mostly to Leo-obsessed women with lots of disposable income. But it's a different economy now, and 200 mil doesn't buy what it once did.
Which brings us to the crux of the issue. Estimates for Avatar's budget have ranged from $230 million (not counting $150 million in marketing) to $500 million, depending on: who you ask, how Cameron's deferred compensation figures in, and what phase of the moon it is. Around $400 million sounds believable, considering the length of production and number of personnel involved.
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So Avatar would need to double that to start seeing profit. Is it possible? Are people going to be compelled so much by the awesome visuals that they want to see it the two, three, or five times it's going to take to reach that total? And how will New Moon's ridiculous opening weekend box office total figure in?
Because every doofus with a keyboard and a lingering affection for Aliens is going to chime in on this for the next few weeks, I'm convinced Avatar is going to be a disappointment. It won't flop -- the curiosity factor is too high -- but Fox is hoping for Titanic-like numbers, and that's not going to happen.
I came to this conclusion using a complex algorithm which boils down to: Avatar is being compared to Dances with Wolves: Kevin Costner's next movie was Waterworld, a rather significant bomb; everyone assumed Titanic was going to flop, but the opposite actually occurred. And it won Best Picture.
Avatar will, in fact, be Cameron's Waterloo, if not his Waterworld.