It’s the beginning of February and James Cameron’s Avatar has been #1 at the box office for the past 8 weekends in a row, all the while showing no immediate signs of stopping. It’s about to officially become the highest grossing movie anytime, anywhere, and although it might seem like old news already, this is a pretty amazing accomplishment for a movie that had so much uncertainty leading up to its release.
Did anyone out there really expect it to become such a massive phenomenon? I sure didn’t. Not only did the trailers and marketing material seem a bit shaky early on, but the 2.5 hour running time, strange fantasy world, and lack of proven movie stars left this looking like a hard sell for mainstream audiences. Yet somehow, all the risks paid off, and upon its release the movie quickly built up steam until it became an unstoppable force. So how exactly did this happen? Was it always meant to be? Let’s take a look at a few of the key factors that allowed Avatar to become the biggest movie of all time.
This one’s the most obvious explanation, but also probably the most significant. I’m not talking about the higher price of tickets for 3-D films (although that shouldn’t be completely disregarded), I’m talking about the wow factor and the buzz that comes from the 3-D experience. There have been 3-D movies before, but nothing quite on this scale. The sensory overload left an impression on people, and made them want to share the experience with others, creating incredibly strong word of mouth. What’s more, this was something that could not be pirated or replicated on the eventual DVD release, and people knew that it was simply something that had to be seen on the big screen. That all translates directly to ticket sales and big dollar signs.
2. Lack of Competition
It was arguably a pretty weak 2009 holiday line-up at the movies, a long-term result of the writer’s strike in late 2007/early 2008. With most of the major tentpole releases in 2009 targeting the summer months, Avatar’s only real competition was Sherlock Holmes and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel — both of which did quite well, but still could not catch it. Adult comedies like Everybody’s Fine, Did You Hear About the Morgans? and It’s Complicated all essentially bombed, and middling Oscar hopefuls like Invictus and Brothers were simply not a factor. The door was wide open for Avatar to dominate throughout the second half of December and well into the cinematic wastelands of January.
3. PG-13 Rating
The key to success around the holiday season is to have a movie that the entire family can enjoy, and Avatar ended up fitting this bill to a T. Plenty of bloggers and fanboys criticized the blue, cartoony design of the Na’vi, saying that they vaguely resembled something out of the Star Wars prequels, or even the CG dud Delgo. Well, that may be, but it is also precisely why families gravitated towards this film, along with the fact that it is rated PG-13. Avatar delivered more than enough action to please adrenaline junkies, but it was not so violent that it scared off parents or barred younger viewers from seeing it.
4. Simple and Familiar Story
By far the biggest criticism of Avatar has been the fact that the story is simplistic and/or unoriginal. While more “sophisticated” moviegoers may prefer to see complex and innovative storytelling on the big screen, the average viewer doesn’t want to think too hard — especially during an action movie. The fact that Cameron’s story tapped into familiar themes and archetypes while keeping scientific mumbo-jumbo to a minimum only added to its accessibility. Also, the environmental message in the movie may have been a bit of a draw for some viewers, since green living has been a big trend over the past few years, with people wanting to feel like they are showing appreciation for the environment (even if they aren’t actually doing much about it).
5. James Cameron
Although Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana did star in their own respective 2009 summer blockbusters prior to Avatar’s release, Avatar still didn’t really have any major A-list stars to plaster across posters and magazine covers. Instead, the marketing focused on director James Cameron, and his impressive resume of previous films. This ended up being a great move, because the man really has done no wrong, and his name is one that holds a lot of credibility with film fans. On top of that, the close connection to Titanic put Avatar in discussions about box office records simply by association, way before it was even close to breaking them.
6. The Tipping Point
The final factor I wanted to bring up is one that probably applies to just about any wild success story, and if you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, you’ll be familiar with the theory as it applies to social behaviours and popular culture. In the case of Avatar, I really feel like it was not an instant success out of the gate (it notched only the 28th best opening weekend), but over time it reached a point where suddenly everyone was hearing about it and they felt like they had to see it or else they would be out of the loop. Also, people want to be a part of a winning team, so as soon as they start hearing about a movie coming close to breaking records, they naturally want to join in. It’s all about momentum, and after the first month, it began to feel like Avatar was simply destined to dethrone Titanic. In the end, we all fulfilled our own prophecy.
So what do you think… do you agree with this list? What are the biggest reasons for the massive success of Avatar?