‘Avatar’ Seeking a Titanic Box Office
LOS ANGELES - Like any James Cameron film, Avatar is colossal by almost every measure: cost, technology and scope.
In the movie business, though, only one barometer matters: box office. And it has become popular sport here to speculate not only how big Cameron's $300 million sci-fi soap opera will open this weekend, but what it will need to break even in the long haul.
The short answer: a lot.
Analysts say Avatar probably will need to rake in $500 million overseas and at least $250 million in North America to make up for production, marketing and print costs.
But more is at stake than profits, analysts say. The push for theaters to pay for expensive 3-D equipment came largely from Cameron, who has touted his film as a watershed in digital filmmaking.
"You don't have too many weekends when the box office is watched this closely," says Jeff Bock, analyst for industry tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.
"If it's a big hit, a couple things might happen," he says. "The 3-D gold rush will be on. Plus, studios might be more willing to spend that kind of money on big, special-effects-driven films."
And if it flops? "I don't think any studio wants to consider that, because then you don't know what works."
Cameron knows he has driven up expectations. He personally requested the film be moved from blockbuster-heavy summer and instead released during the holidays, much like he did for Titanic.
"We know people will be watching us, and that's OK," he says. "We blew ourselves up real big earlier this year (in spreading word about the movie) to scare away other 3-D movies from this weekend. Now we have to prove ourselves."
So far, critics have been wowed. The film has earned recommendations from more than 80% of the nation's reviewers, according to the movie review site RottenTomatoes.com.
That could give the movie legs through the traditionally slow post-New Year's period, just as it did in 1997 for Titanic, the highest-grossing film ever with $600 million domestically. "I don't think it will break any records on opening day, but he's set up nice for a long run through winter," says Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com. "He's done it before."
One possible snag: Some theaters plan to charge $15 for the 3-D, IMAX experience. That could dissuade marginal Cameron fans, Bock says.
Cameron, as usual, isn't sweating it. "The bigger the spectacle, the better the deal," he says. "For what you have to pay to see a small romantic comedy or little independent film, my movie is a great deal. There's no bargain like that in the world."