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[Article] – Can Avatar Break The Box-Office Again?

 

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Posted September 6, 2017 by

 
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So filming is finally underway on the Avatar sequels, four to be precise and to be shot concurrently, a model James Cameron has adopted from Peter Jackson on The Lord Of The Rings. But its (current) release date for 2020 will be eleven years after the original, will audiences still be interested, has the fervour died down after so long or will Avatar crown box-office behemoth Cameron king of the world again?

The original Avatar was somewhat of an anomaly, not a sequel. prequel, reboot or part of any existing franchise or intellectual property, but it went on the become the highest grossing film of all time with a staggering $2.7 billion, a whole $700 million ahead of its closest rival (excluding Titanic) Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That statistic alone tells you how successful Avatar was, grossing so much more than the most anticipated sequel to the most popular and well known franchise of all time.

When not even Star Wars can compete, has Avatar set the bar too high for itself, can Cameron repeat the trick not once but four times over, you feel with films on this scale, each would have to gross at least $1 billion to be considered to not be a flop, given what will be astronomical production and marketing costs. It seems a rather insane proposition considering only thirty films (as of august ‘17) have ever grossed over the $1 billion mark.

Come 2020, it seems hard to image that audiences will have forgotten about a film that grossed so much, and was so hugely popular, it also has James Cameron on it’s side, no stranger to breaking the box-office. Having not just the one, but the two highest grossing films of all time under his belt, Cameron also has three films that were the highest grossing of their release years, with Terminator 2: Judgement Day alongside Avatar and Titanic, a feat only bettered by Steven Spielberg. Judgement Day sets a good precedent for Avatar, despite coming seven years after its predecessor and being rated R, it still grossed over $500 million, a huge amount back in 1991.

It’s an understatement to say that Cameron’s films are popular, especially so since most of his works are original features, not many directors can command such box-office figures without piggybacking on an existing franchise. But Cameron is a filmmaker who knows what audiences want; he knows how to appeal to not just core demographic of 16-25 year old males, but to female audiences too. It’s no secret that Titanic’s titanic success was largely in part to repeat viewings by female audiences who became enamoured by the romance between Jack and Rose, and Cameron has long been a proponent of strong female characters since he inherited Ellen Ripley from Ridley Scott.

Aliens cemented Ripley’s place as one of the great heroines, and created a template Cameron would continue to develop with Sarah Connor in the Terminator series, a character that starts of a mousey and frightened, but turns into a razor-sharp, shotgun wielding icon. Linda Hamilton’s transformation between the two films is dedication personified, and while Arnie may have been the star, as she and Cameron departed the series it began to falter.

Schwarzenegger returned (in some part) for all the following entries, but without a strong female presence, and of course decreasing quality the franchise has reached a dead end.

Sarah Connor was quintessentially integral to the Terminator franchise, and female characters have remained equally important to the rest of Cameron’s output, with Avatar being no exception. Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez and old pal Sigourney Weaver all played no nonsense characters who weren’t’ there to be pushed around, whose presence no doubt contributed to large female audiences in attendance.

Perhaps greater than strong female presence throughout Cameron’s films is cutting-edge technology, which gave Avatar one of its biggest appeals, the lure of 3-D. The advancement of CGI has given Cameron ability to push the cinematic envelope, with the metamorphosing T-1000 in Judgement Day, the water beings in The Abyss and embellishing the terrifying events in Titanic, but Avatar was his biggest effects-based project yet.

The ground-breaking effects provided by WETA Digital allowed Cameron to see the virtual world of Pandora in real time and direct with an estimate of the finished product rather than seeing just the green screen and mo-cap suits, this of course was all deployed in 3-D. The stereoscopic format had been long dormant, usually reserved for animated films before Avatar came along, but Cameron had been interested in 3-D after working on Titanic, and the world of Pandora became a suitable muse.

3-D was unquestionably integral to Avatar’s success, with 70% of its box-office total coming from 3-D screenings, the burgeoning hype surrounding the film and an overwhelming response to the stereoscopy led to countless others trying to cash in on the craze. Cameron’s enthusiasm for the format combined with its deployment in a mostly digital environment meant every shot could be carefully created and considered, but it is not a format without its drawbacks.

While 3-D may have taken off after Avatar, with huge spikes in revenue from 3-D screenings the following year, alongside critical successes like Hugo, Life Of Pi and Gravity, all of which won best cinematography Oscars, there has been a malaise steadily growing, stereoscopy may have offered a new way of experiencing films, but some of its traits are growing tiresome. 3-D is a difficult and expensive format to shoot with, some have circumvented this by applying the 3-D format in post-production, but this has not often been well received, most famously with Clash Of The Titans.

Poorly executed 3-D leads to eyestrain, darkened images and potential motion sickness, obvious drawbacks for audiences, alongside a rather simple problem of the glasses themselves, which remain necessary to viewing the format. Initially business may have boomed for 3-D exhibitors, but 3-D box-office revenue and the number of 3-D released films is gradually declining, and could decline even further by 2020. 3-D may have drawn audiences in first time around but their hunger may have been sated, it takes a great visionary like Cameron or Scorsese to employ 3-D to its fullest potential, and there have been far too many unremarkable efforts that do not justify their increased ticket prices.

But it would be no surprise if Cameron would be the one to reignite the 3-D flame again, always breaking new technological ground; the gap between films has no doubt been used to improve the 3-D performance. The sequels had been rumoured to be shown with glasses free 3-D, which would be a huge selling point, though Cameron has recently dismissed this.

Cameron surely will have upgraded the 3-D process, but without clear definite progression such as glasses free, something that can be clearly marketed, it may lack the necessary appeal. The 3-D may be better but the lure of ‘Now in 3-D’ or ‘Presented in three dimensions’ has lost its lustre of late, though there may be other technological advancements that can provide a selling point.

Another area Cameron has shown interest in is HFR (high frame rate) where images are shot at a higher rate than the standard 24fps (frames per second.)

Shooting in HFR reduces a lot of the 3-D problems previously mentioned, motion blur, sickness and so forth with more lifelike and vivid results, but previous cinematic attempts haven’t helped bring HFR to the mainstream.

Peter Jackson shot The Hobbit trilogy at 48fps, but bad word of mouth and poor distribution led to this going pretty much under the radar, and certainly not sparking up conversations like Avatar did with 3-D. Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk went further and shot at 120fps, but again poor reviews and even poorer distribution meant it’s efforts went fairly unnoticed.

Despite such lukewarm reception so far, HFR does create the opportunity for a new kind of viewing experience, the kind you would think the Avatar sequel will need to offer to replicate its original success. Director and special effects legend Douglas Trumbull has had better success with experimenting with HFR, creating a 120fps system that is more accommodating to shoot with, and more importantly to distribute. But its embroilment with Billy Lynn, a film that copied its template, and the film’s subsequent failure have seen Trumbull’s efforts yet to garner any widespread exposure.

Though technical specs have not yet been released, Cameron has been rumoured to be shooting at 48fps, 60fps and even 120fps, it seems likely that the sequels will be in HFR of some form. HFR may not have the audience recognition that 3-D has, and might not be as easily understandable, but it can offer the same kind of ‘new’ viewing experience Avatar offered back in 2009. The original’s 3-D success was in part down to exceptional preview screenings that took the format viral; perhaps HFR can have similar success if well received.

Another aspect key in Avatar original success will continue to be ever more important next time around, the growing global market. It used to be that the North American box-office would count for the largest part of a films gross, but over the last decade or so the expanse of the worldwide market and an ever increasing number of cinemas has seen the global box-office overtake North America. Avatar’s global appeal saw it gross almost two thirds of it total overseas, with China proving particularly lucrative.

With other territories becoming more profitable, many films since have tried to incorporate a broader appeal, such as casting from wider ethnic backgrounds and shooting in locations like Shanghai. Failing to appeal in these territories can now be a dangerous move for any film that wants global success, The Force Awakens failed to challenge Avatar, this wasn’t helped by a poor performance in China, where the original films have little recognition. You would feel that the casting of Kelly Marie Tran, an actress of Asian descent, in The Last Jedi would strengthen its performance in those territories.

Though it seems Avatar is banking on its brand new worlds to be the selling points, its cast remains generally American throughout, and with few star names apart from Zoe Saldana who has increased her global appeal with the successful franchises of Star Trek and Guardians Of The Galaxy. There is also the surprising fact that is to be no new villain, with Stephen Lang returning for all four films, not only does this news remove any dramatic tension from his appearance, knowing that he will continue to survive; it is also a missed opportunity to cast a character with a more diverse appeal. It may be a risky move for Avatar to gamble its success on name recognition, as only time will tell if its popularity has dwindled, if it cannot perform overseas, then there is no chance of a repeat success.

Avatar would be wise to build upon the template that brought such success first time around, and there are signs this is happening, but there are also mishaps and pitfalls that need to be avoided. To assume that audiences just seeing the name ‘Avatar’ again will bring in the box-office bucks will be a real test of its stature, if the original was a flash in the pan, or if it has roots to become a successful, long-running franchise. Though Avatar’s biggest selling point may be Cameron himself, gaps between his films has never hurt before, and he doesn’t just make films, he makes ‘events’, when Cameron has something new to offer people show up. Boy do they show up.

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Written by:

Sam May
@Sjmay92
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