Avatar's Success: Hooray for Hollywood and the U.S.?

As 2009 in Hollywood ends with a 3D bang, box offices are already gearing up for Avatar 2. It's not that Avatar director James Cameron has already rushed out a highly anticipated sequel. Rather, observers are bracing for the revenue avalanche his movie will generate in its third weekend onscreen -- even as they debate the movie's effect on their industry and the staying power of its pioneering production techniques.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% Fans of Avatar, from News Corp.'s (NWS) Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., are already clamoring for more of its 3D effects. "It's not a kids' movie, so I didn't feel stupid going to see it," says Will Michaels, 45, from Baltimore. But industry responses to Cameron's movie are mixed.

"Everyone is happy that people went out to the theater," says Brian Koppelman, co-writer and director of the forthcoming movie Solitary Man. "But I've heard more filmmakers heartened by the numbers [Warner Bros. Pictures's (TWX)] The Blind Side has posted. That's the bigger story, because that film's success isn't supposed to happen anymore. A compelling story, wonderfully told, isn't supposed to be enough. Yet [director John Lee] Hancock's picture has done astounding box-office business."

Koppelman continues, "We all know huge movies will be made, so the successes of the smaller films is more exciting in a way -- because perhaps those wins will lead the studios back into supporting those type of movies, too."

Long-Simmering Interest

Some observers feel that Cameron's avoidance of prerelease hype for Avatar whetted moviegoers' appetites. "The movie wasn't oversold or overhyped," says Gareb Shamus, whose Wizard Entertainment Group runs several Comic-Con fan conventions (certain to be packed with avatars in 2010). "Cameron didn't go on the talk-show circuit, saying how it was going to break box-office records."

And enthusiasts' eagerness for Avatar has been percolating for years, with snippets surfacing among fans. "That's created a groundswell of interest from the 'geek' community," Shamus says -- and the nongeek community too, as the movie's recordbreaking receipts demonstrate.

Despite Avatar's success, don't expect a flurry of 3D movies invading theaters, Koppleman says. "I don't think it's going to bleed into all sorts of movies, but it will definitely be on the table for bigger-budgeted tent-pole films from now on," he says. "Studios will bring it up to filmmakers, for sure."

As Avatar Goes, So Goes Hollywood?

And don't point to Avatar to gauge the economy, or to predict whether Americans will flock to the movies next year. Although Hollywood sold $10 billion in tickets this year, that's not a watershed because it includes a 15% rise nationwide in ticket prices, says Richard Laermer, author of 2011: Trendspotting for the Next Decade. "In 'seat math,' this was not a great year, compared to say, 1939," he says.

Nor will the miracle of Avatar do anything to help U.S. unemployment. The technology used to create its effects is housed in New Zealand. (Of course, that could be very good news for airlines with direct flights between Los Angeles and Auckland.) But it will give us all a comfortable place to go in the afternoon.

"Avatar is all about pure popcorn escapist entertainment," says Paul Dergarabedian, an analyst for Hollywood.com. "Beyond that, the incredible diversity of films in the marketplace literally offers something for every cinematic taste."
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