Is Avatar Too Expensive To Be Successful?

Published 5 years ago by , Updated November 10th, 2009 at 11:27 pm,

Avatar logo money piles 570x427 Is Avatar Too Expensive To Be Successful?

Wallets shook in the pant seats of moviegoers (and likely more than a few filmmakers) worldwide this week, as The New York Times released a report tallying the financial costs of James Cameron’s upcoming sci-fi epic, Avatar – and man, just looking at the raw numbers, it’s hard not to start having flashbacks to 1995 when Kevin Costner’s Waterwold topped the hill as the most expensive hype-and-flop flick ever made (did I just horribly date myself with that comment, BTW?).

Avatar will reportedly cost 20th Century Fox, James Cameron and all subsequent investors a combined total of $500 million to make and market, leaving, well, MOST OF US wondering if the film – based on a (semi) original story imagined by Cameron) – has a hope of being a box office success story, or the fate of being the next Waterworld.

Now, before I hype this all up as some kind of “all or broke” type scenario, let me just say that the Hollywood power players have indeed learned a thing or two from the days of Waterwold, and have taken some prudent steps to ensure that one carton of spilled milk doesn’t ruin the entire farm. A lot of these new super-big-budget movie ventures are a shared pot: you got the studio, filmmakers with deep pockets (like Cameron) and any private investor interested in the project, all pooling their cash and sharing in the rewards. In the event of a failure, it means that everyone invested feels a little less of the financial blowback (very important in these times of recession).

That all $aid, Avatar has still run up a tab of approx $230 million in production costs (the $500 million figure includes all the pooled investments for production, marketing, distribution, etc.). That 200+ figure is still something of a risky number for an untested property – even Superman’s ‘Return’ was viewed as a short stay when that film took in less than $400 million worldwide to counter-balance its $270 million budget. Considered in those terms, it’s easy to see how the universe Cameron has created for Avatar might go down as the most expensive daydream never to hit the mark.

…Or is it?

avatar new image2 Is Avatar Too Expensive To Be Successful?

You can read the full NY Times article for all the financial ins and outs to this (it’s some excellent reporting). The article describes in detail how this “shared pool” model of financing a film comes with its own kind of safety nets (for instance, if the film flops, Cameron is obligated to pay back the studio out of his own profit share, thereby further insulating the studio). However, one factor that few people seem to have addressed: even if you saw the teaser trailer, and then the full extended trailer and are still of the opinion that Avatar – this alleged industry/technology/art form/experience changing event – will not live up to the hype, you at least better believe that the filmmaking seeds Cameron has sown with this project will bear him many fruits of profit down the line.

Read up on our earlier analysis of the crazy tech Cameron created for Avatar and then tell me that this guy will have to worry about a future revenue stream. Remember how movie f/x entered a new CGI era immediately after T2 shocked our pants off? Well, even if Avatar doesn’t make that kind of craterous dent in the pop-culture landscape, early praise from acclaimed directors clearly indicates that Cameron’s new filming techniques will be in high demand by those looking to set their own films up there where the bar has been notched up.

When you think about it like that, this whole situation suddenly becomes clear (for me, at least): Avatar is already that “Oh yeah, that’s where they first started using [INSERT INNOVATIVE TECH NAME].” Even if the film and the property don’t thrive, James Cameron will still have made a serious (indelible?) mark on the way CGI/action/fantasy/sci-fi movies get made thereafter. And just like T2: What the innovator created will only get better with each follower who expands upon the technique.

jamescameron 3d Is Avatar Too Expensive To Be Successful?

But of course,  for the record, I must state that this all ‘just my opinion.’

What about you – do you think that Jame Cameron’s Avatar is too expensive (and/or underwhelming) to be a success story? Or, like me, do you believe that too much has been accomplished with this film for it to ever be (completely) written off as a failure?

Source: NY Times

TAGS: Avatar
Get our free email alerts on the topics and author of this article:


Post a Comment

GravatarWant to change your avatar?
Go to and upload your own (we'll wait)!

 Rules: No profanity or personal attacks.
 Use a valid email address or risk being banned from commenting.

If your comment doesn't show up immediately, it may have been flagged for moderation. Please try refreshing the page first, then drop us a note and we'll retrieve it. Keep in mind that we do not allow external links in the comments.

  1. I still believe Avatar will be successful even with a budget close to $500 million. It will make money and be considered a hit with fine reviews IMO.

  2. First of all, has it ever been proven that James Cameron used “I Am Joe” as inspiration or “plagiarized” it? Because honestly, I do not believe it for one bit. James Cameron is way too much of a talented filmmaker for me to see him do something like that. It sounds like the same crap I heard some people say about Steven King’s new novel “Under The Dome” about how he took it from The Simpsons Movie.

    Second of all, the “dude serious” guy above me is a complete idiot. I, personally, thought that Watchmen was a brilliant movie (minus Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II, because I think she is a horrible actress who is only big because she shows her breasts in every movie she is in). Jackie Earle Haley was amazing as Rorschach (as was the other actors minus the prior) and Zack Snyder definitely made me appreciate him even more than I did before (the Dawn of the Dead remake was also very good!).

    To defend Kofi, I do not think he is trying to be a “brown nose” to get “free movie tickets” and to say that is quite idiotic. He simply is taking interest in a movie that looks great and will be an amazing movie!

    But, you can go ahead and watch your Ferngully movie and read your book. You’ll just be missing out.

  3. I think it will either do wildly well or just average for the money invested. I’m talking $700-750m world wide for an average. For me it’s about the story. After so many special effects extravaganzas over the years, it’s time that a good story be put back into film. A movie story should at least be worth 5% of its cost. I can’t claim I know the cost breakdown for the production but this doesn’t look like a story I would spend $11.5m on. No Fantasy or Science Fiction author has been claimed to be attached to this work. For that kind of cash I would think you could have bought a very good author’s story and two top notch screen writers to make it a script and a mythological or scientific expert to get those elements right.

    I really hope my impressions are proven wrong, but if my informal research is any indication, the Football and Corvette crowd won’t be bothering to catch this in the theater…

  4. This has serious flop written all over it from the beggining, regardless of the supposed amazing 3D effects, which a lot of people will never get to see especially in the UK because so few placews even show 3D films!

    Nothing about this excites me at all, the story is pedestrian and traditional, the CGI lookis like CGI, and the cast are hardly exceptional. The problem is the ridiculous over hyping, if no one had ever mentioned the words ‘game changer or cinematic revolution’ then this might have made a nice winter blockbuster.

    I will be saving my money for Sherlock Holmes.

  5. Even with the shared pool of money, I think Fox took a huge risk with this movie, and all, likely, because of Titanic. Most expensive movie ever made turned into the most financially successful movie ever made (not considering inflation). Fox figure if Jim Cameron can do it once, he can do it again. Now I think only time will tell. The movie’s getting a lot of buzz from the internet and hardcore movie geek crowd (like us) but it needs to reach out to the common public to even begin to make a dent in that budget. My sister (miss average joe) saw the teaser and said it looked pretty amazing (big screen, in 3D, she saw it in optimal conditions unlike most of us who saw it on a little computer screen), but I’m sure if I were to ask her about “Avatar” today, she’ll have forgotten all about it, the marketing hasn’t been huge as of late.

    And as for his new tech being a game changer, yes, in the long term, that’s good for all involved, but for this movie alone, he’d better have a decent movie up his sleeve. Toy Story was a game changer, but the film makers never focussed on that, they focussed on the story and characters first and the tech later.

  6. Personally, whether the movie makes money or not is completely irrelevant to me. The only thing that matters to ME is that I finally get to see another movie by James Cameron. It’s been so many years since Terminator 2, Aliens, True Lies, it’s about time we get another action/adventure movie from James Cameron. So as long as the story and the action is good (this is James Cameron, not Michael Bay, so think we’re almost guaranteed this…), I don’t care if it flops because at least I would have experienced the movie. I watch movies for the experience and the wonderful memories they give me, not to see where it ends up on the box office numbers. I can care less about that…

    So bring it on Cameron.

  7. @SamBeckett

    Hey, you’re entitled to your opinion and I’m pretty sure the movie’s success doesn’t hinge on you buying tickets, but Sherlock Holmes, really? I really like RDJ, but seriously, that movie doesn’t really look good at all. Then again, I’ve never been a fan of Guy Ritchie, so it might just be his style that’s putting me off, who knows… My sister thinks Holmes looks downright horrible, lol, I won’t go that far, she’s pickier than I am, but it does look kind of cheesy…

  8. The CGI species do not look attactive to me. The blues skin with long skinny arms & legs.
    Well the success of this movie now will rely very much on the story telling (60%~70%) & (30%~40%) special effects might able to justify.
    Audience nowadays have seen pretty much of these si-fi effects particularly on the comics genre movies, hence we are less hype wth the special-effect anymore.
    As for the creatures creativity, dont seems to create a strong impression to me as an icon like the Terminators.

  9. Let’s see if the movie is any good before making predictions. Also, I remember many people were convinced ‘Titanic’ would be a too-expensive failure. Box office history proved that wrong. Either way, I’m sure tons of people will be saying ‘Told you so’ whether ‘Avatar’ succeeds, fails, or does so-so.

  10. I feel this movie will make its money based on word of mouth. The audience for sci-fi is not THAT big (as in $500 million + big) so it will have to do well in the weeks following the release IMO. If we, those who are looking forward to it, see it the first or second week and tell people we know that we loved it it should garner more movie goers. But, if the initial viewers don’t like it, IMO it will indeed be a financial flop.

  11. ‘Waterworld’? You mean that movie that made ALL of its money back thanks to overseas ticket sales and didn’t exactly bomb in the States either?

    Cameron has been in this boat before. Namely, the one named Titanic.

  12. @will

    Waterworld didn’t even make twice it’s budget back. To be called a financial success, it would need to make at least 3 times it’s budget (to account for marketing and other monetary concerns that aren’t included in the production budget). It wasn’t the biggest blunder in movie history, but was at one point, the most expensive movie ever made and it’s shortfalls at the box office were more pronounced because of that.

    That sort of falls over into Avatar as well, the move needs to make >$500 million back, but not a lot more. $700 million would suffice and while I know that’s a huge number for any movie to try to aspire to, if the movie is as good, quality-wise as last years Dark Knight, it is possible.

    Again though, huge risk.

  13. this movie going to epic, probably better than district 9

  14. sorry be epic

  15. I seem to remember similar concerns with another Cameron film about a sinking boat.

  16. Ok I liked The Dark Knight as much as the next person but it is not the benchmark by which everything else should be judged.

    It is by no means a perfect movie!

  17. @DrSamBeckett

    I only mentioned The Dark Knight because it grossed over a billion dollars, mostly on word of mouth. Avatar needs to emulate something close to that in order to be financially successful.

  18. A lot of you keep mentioning ‘Titantic’, and while very expensive and hugely successful worldwide, there’s a major difference. ‘Titantic’ had instant appeal to pretty much everyone based on name-recognition alone. ‘Avatar’ doesn’t have that. If you just say the word “avatar”, you’re not many people’s interest.

  19. Well I fell guaranteed that this movie will make it’s money back but will also have rely heavily on the mouth publicity too like Titanic did. Then only I think this movie will be able to make it’s money back as far as I see that will happen because it’s James Cameron’ movie no matter what people will say now they will change their opinion once they see the movie in 3d imax that for sure.

  20. I’m with Ken J on this one. James Cameron is a geek-god, and anything he’s involved with will garner instant appeal to me. The man knows how to tell a story and he knows special effects. It almost seems like people want this movie to fail because of the anticipation. If the movie is as good as directors are saying, why not see it? Are you naysayers saying that this movie can’t even make Transformers type money? Because that’s what I keep hearing and reading. After Star Trek, this was my most anticipated film of this year; and I still can’t believe someone is coming down on Kofi just because he is hyped for the film. Well, just add me to that bash-the-Cameron-lovers list.

  21. This is less of a ‘Billion Dollar Money Making Machine’ for Cameron and more of a ‘Let Me Innovate The Industry’ film, because although he probably has crafted a well told story and gets good performances from his actors, its always been about the technology here, and its ability to do things to make jaws drop and audiences go ‘OMG…that’s AWESOME!!’.

    He never really hyped the film’s story or gushed praise for his actors, he always talks about the technology behind Avatar and how he hopes it will change the way we all experience movies in the future. And I agree with Kofi, whether this is another billion in the film industries coffers or not, Cameron will have started something that every director involved in genre films (a couple have already asked about or shown interest in the technology) will be trying to get their hands on and use in their big budget epics.

    Will Avatar be Cameron’s Titanic II or Waterworld II? I cannot say, although I am biased because the trailers have simply made me a puddle of goo with the excellent visuals and what I’ve seen tells me initially that it might hold up story-wise and will probably make its $500M and do +250-300M in domestic/worldwide sales over that, but that is just my fevered dreams for the film. Cameron will most likely, in the future, be considered one of the industry’s greats, not only as a director but as an innovator as well. Only time will tell.

  22. It will make its money back. Easy. I can’t wait to start the I told you so train : )

  23. Avatar’s budget is not 500 million. That includes marketing, which usually equals the budget, but it’s still not part of the production budget.

    Transformers 2 had a budget well over 200 million, but that too would have cost 400-500 million after marketing was done. Same with the likes of the newest Harry Potter, or any other of this year’s blockbusters.

    Avatar is no different, budget wise.

  24. If this movie doesn’t earn as much as Transformers 2, that’s a VERY sad statement about our movie-going public, lol. But as long as I get to see it, I don’t care, I’ll probably see it multiple times if it turns out to be good…

  25. I am looking forward to seeing “Avatar” but I will only see the 3-D version at the only real IMAX theatre here in Seattle. With all the theatres now installing 3-D projectors, I wonder who will be running them? The same incompetents that push the buttons today? I’m tired of seeing blurry and fuzzy pictures, hearing muffled, mono audio and having to leave after the first minutes to complain to management who then come and say “Uuuuhhhh…you’re the only one complaining, so it must be YOU that has a problem.” Yeah, I’m talking to you, REGAL CINEMAS! I saw the preview in 3-D last weekend just before “A Christmas Carol” and it was so much better than the regular showing in an ordinary theatre. I believe this movie will succeed creatively and financially. So many people were ready to write off Cameron before “Titanic” came out–just wait until the movie comes out and then decide!

  26. Surprised to see no one’s brought up the fact that tickets for a 3D showing cost a heck of a lot more than tickets for a regular screening, and honestly, this is the ONE movie that you have to see in 3D to appreciate.

    That’s going to help a lot in the end.

  27. Cameron is a perfectionist. That is why Avatar ended up costing half a BILLION dollars. If any other director tackled this project, it probobly would have cost much less. Still, I am sure that Avatar will be a great movie. In that case, I don’t care if it does poor or great. Just bring on Battle Angel Alita and I’ll be the happiest guy on Earth!!!!

  28. It cost 230mil to make even in the new york times article.. they added 150mil for marketing and they got 500mil outta that (idk how) and basically put up a headline “AVATAR COSTS $500 MILLION TO MAKE!!!”.. how ridiculous is this “reporting”