As part of their multi-billion dollar deal to buy various assets from 21st Century Fox, the Walt Disney Company became the proud owners of some much-coveted intellectual properties. Most of the column inches dedicated to the acquisition have focused on how the purchase would finally allow Disney to bring the X-Men and Deadpool titles under the umbrella of Marvel Studios, and the obvious issues of dealing with a potential media monopoly in the current entertainment and cultural landscape. What hasn’t garnered as many discussions has been the fate of the Avatar franchise.
James Cameron’s epic sci-fi fantasy tale holds a curious place in pop culture history. It remains, by a substantial margin, the most successful movie of all time at the box office, but it seems to hold little sway as a cultural or fandom icon. It doesn’t have the passionate fandom that, say, comic book movies do, and people have never seemed that excited about the prospect of sequels. Its presence on the pop culture landscape is pretty limited, and it’s often considered something of a joke - even among those who liked it. It’s curious to note how a film that made as much money as this did – an eye-watering $2.788bn – has left so little a mark on our geek consciousness. Perhaps that’s why its inclusion in the Disney acquisition received such muted coverage.
Yet despite being treated like a footnote, the Avatar franchise may end up being a hugely worthwhile investment for Disney. Avatar has four planned sequels, with an estimated overall cost of $1bn, easily making them some of the most expensive films ever made. Cameron has already talked at length about how he plans to use the best technology available – with the possibility of 3D without the glasses – to ensure the series remains at the cutting edge of the most advanced filmmaking on the planet. Having that kind of know-how on board at Disney can only benefit them, and open up major possibilities for films like the Marvel and Star Wars franchises.
On a purely creative level, Avatar has seemingly endless potential to advance CGI in cinema, and break new ground for the theatrical experience. Avatar was the kind of film you needed to see in the theater, and with box office revenue falling across America, Avatar could be a film that guarantees butts in seats. It’s also a potential franchise that Disney could expand from the foundations up: New characters, new creatures, possible prequels and sequels and spin-offs and much more.
Disney already had an investment in the success of Avatar before the Fox purchase. Over in Florida’s Animal Kingdom, you can visit the wonderful world of Pandora, based on the movie’s lush home planet. What many considered to be a flop in the making has turned into one of Disneyworld Resort’s biggest surprises, with hours-long queues for the attractions and rave reviews from tourists and theme park lovers alike. The park is doing well enough, 9 whole years after the film’s release, but imagine how jam-packed it would get during the lead-up to and release of the sequels. The Disney theme parks are huge money spinners and perfect opportunities for corporate synergy – why else open up lands dedicated to Star Wars, Marvel and Toy Story? Pandora’s bringing in the big bucks in Florida, but it has the potential to do even better in Disney’s most recent park, Disneyland Shanghai.
If there is any major reason as to why an Avatar acquisition is good for Disney, then look no further than the almighty forces of the Chinese box office. What was once a no-go area for American studios has become the promised land of financial investment for the blockbuster age. Disney does well in China, with films like Zootopia breaking box office records, but not everything plays well there. Disney can’t release films with ghosts, for example, due to nationwide cultural laws, and the Star Wars franchise is not the guaranteed smash hit there that it is elsewhere. What is a big deal there is Avatar; the movie made $204m in China alone, which remained an all-time box office record for years. While other North American studios struggle to crack the Chinese box office, Avatar could give Disney another firm foothold in one of the biggest film markets in the world.
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