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?
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.
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
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