Prior to the release of Avatar last December, it had been 12 years since James Cameron released a major motion picture following the epic Titanic, which become the number one grossing film of all-time. It’s not like the guy needed to release anything new. He was king of the cinematic world and could have retired if he wanted to, practically secure in the fact that no film in his lifetime would top that achievement. Ever adventurous, he continued to expand the boundaries of cinema, producing a few documentaries, including directing the IMAX 3-D releases Ghosts Of The Abyss and Aliens Of The Deep, which further indulged his love for oceanic mysteries.
Five years ago Cameron began work on Avatar, a film whose effects and 3-D technique would further transform cinema on a grand scale. There certainly was a lot of hype behind the movie, which opened last month and became an immediate hit, grossing over $300 million worldwide on opening weekend. It has now reached $1.6 billion globally and looks likely to overtake Titanic for the position of highest grossing movie ever.
Well, not exactly. If one takes Titanic‘s 1997 global gross of $1.84 billion and translates it into 2009 dollars, then it actually made $2.57 billion globally. That means that Avatar actually has a billion dollars to go before beating it (which seems improbable to reach), although it is unlikely that the media or Hollywood will bother to note that. (And older movies like Gone With The Wind and Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope, when adjusted for inflation, might top both of these.) Further, less people are going to see the film as the cost of a movie ticket has gone up substantially since 1997. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners (yes, NATO), the average cost of a movie ticket in 1997 was $4.59 (or $6.14 in current dollars). The average ticket in 2008 was $7.18 (probably about $8 now, plus more at IMAX and 3-D screenings), and moviegoers in urban markets normally pay between $10 and $12. Indeed, TIME reports that the cost of one adult ticket for an IMAX 3-D performance of Avatar at Manhattan’s Lincoln Square 13 costs $18.50. IMAX currently accounts for nearly $100 million of the film’s total gross.
Let’s not kid ourselves — Avatar is a massive success, both technically and financially, that only a director like Cameron could pull off. But the hype behind its inflated box office success is something that should not be ignored, particularly at a time when blockbuster budgets are spiraling out of control. Movies like Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen and Spider-Man 3 are costing more and more ($250 million apiece, including marketing), and while their returns are big ($830-$900 million worldwide each), they are not as impressive as The Twilight Saga: New Moon (approximate $80 million budget, $700 million global take) or The Hangover ($75 million budget, $462 million haul) in terms of ultimate profitability. Bigger isn’t always better; one can work with smaller means. Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy cost a combined $450 million and grossed $3 billion worldwide.
Yes, currently impossible-to-bootleg 3-D movies represent a solid future for the movies, especially with once-reliable DVD revenues shrinking, but the bottom line for bigger productions should be examined. According to the New York Times, the production and marketing budgets for Avatar totalled $460 million. Given that theater chains take in 40%-50% of box office receipts, one must usually double their budgetary figure to find the tally that will allow them to break even on a cinematic investment. A $920 million break even point is risky for any studio, so it is unlikely we’ll be seeing a movie this big get made again for a long time. And that’s a good thing.
While Avatar will probably go on to be crowned the largest grossing movie of all-time, the true measure of its success should probably be determined by the emotional resonance it will sustain in the future. Titanic won over the world because of the love story at the heart of its disaster tale. And yes, it was a technological marvel. Will we view Avatar the same way in ten years? We can only wait and see.