Pandora’s Box Office: 6 Secrets to Avatar’s Success

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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.


1. 3-D

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.

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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?

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  • DHE

    The only thing you can say about Avatar is that it’s made a crapload of money and that it’s pushing people to make 3D movies out of movies that ought not be 3D. Other than that, there’s no longer much of a story about the film, except the madness of crowds. And, of course, all the money it’s making, which is getting to be a boring story at this point.

    In 10 years everyone will remember it as a craze, not a particularly memorable film.

  • The Man

    I completely disagree with number 2. I believe both Sherlock Holmes and the Squeakquel both provided a ton of competition for any film. Avatar just happen to be a bit more than just any film. I don’t think it’s success can really be explained. I mean if someone told right after titanic passed the 550 million mark that it would be dethrone after 10 years by a movie that’s 60% CG, and stars 9 foot tall blue people, would you believe them?

    I’m surprised. Be cause that opening wasn’t that great by today’s standards. A movie like The Dark Knight was more typical of to day’s Box office preformance. Huge opening then drop by 50% each weekend.

  • The Man

    “In 10 years everyone will remember it as a craze, not a particularly memorable film.”

    So either words it’ll be Titanic. I agree with that. Maybe in ten years we’ll get our first domestic first billion dollar movie.

  • http://www.filmjunk.com/ Sean

    In the last few years there have usually been at least 5 or 6 major releases over Christmas, this year there were only 3 (4 if you count Up in the Air expanding). There was definitely a lot less choice, especially in terms of “blockbusters”.

  • Bluelouboyle

    Good list, Sean. I definitely agree that the familiar story and environmental theme attracted a lot of people. Also the spectacle. And maybe James Cameron was more of a draw – well not him personally, but his track record – to the general public than I thought.

    There maybe another factor: The economic and political climate. It’s been proven many times that during depressing times – like recessions – people flock to escapist movies. The big example is Star Wars in the 70s. America was miserable, thanks to the Vietnam war and the 70s economic slump. It’s arguable that the Lord of the Rings films would not have been as successful – although still reasonably so – if the September 11th attacks had not happened. People were comforted by the warm characters and easily defined good/evil plot.
    And now we come to Avatar. There is a global economic slump (the worst recession ever) and there is still the threat of terrorism hanging over people’s heads. Also, many people may have liked the anti-Iraq/Afghanistan wars elements, which were ridiculously unsubtle.

  • Cufford

    At the risk of stating the obvious, Avatar was good enough in the minds of enough movie viewers, to recommend it to other viewers. It was clearly word of mouth that has propelled it to this height.

    Which, I guess, you can say about any movie that retains box office dominance for such a long stretch.

    Regardless of what elements resulted in pleasing such a large audience, it’s the audience reception to it that has made it the success it is.

  • Bluelouboyle

    Cufford, obviously word of mouth has helped the movie become so successful. The point of the article was WHY has the WOM been so good!

  • Duke Togo

    Here’s the most comprehensive Avatar review :
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJarz7BYnHA&feature=related

    I never saw Titanic and I didn’t see any of the 3d movies, so I saw Avatar out of curiosity about the 3d technology, it was too washed out colorwise IMO. Also, the last Cameron movie I saw in a theater was True Lies which was fun so I figured I’d give his latest film a chance.

    I can just see Avatar running through the Summer at drive ins, then there also has to be a re-release with additional 3d , towards the end of Avatar there wasn’t as much 3d processing as the beginning of the film, maybe Cameron ran out of time or money and wasn’t able to make all scenes as ’3d’ as he hoped.

  • bullet3

    Duke Togo, in fact, if you read up on this or look into it, the amount of 3d is pretty much constant in the movie. It stops seeming 3d towards the end because your eyes have gotten used to it and it seems natural by that point.

  • YO MAMA

    That link to that youtube review is f-ing awesome.

    Everyone should watch.

  • Maopheus

    I wonder if anyone has calculate the actual number of people who have actually watched the movie at this point in time compared to Titanic at the same point in its release. It’s probably lower and I doubt that Avatar will match Titanic in terms of actual viewings. With Titanic you had people watching the movie 5-6 times. I remember Entertainment Weekly doing their list of most watched movies ever. This took the box office money totals out of the picture, which tends to skew towards more recent movies, and also takes the adjusted for inflation totals which still don’t really provide an accurate assessment. I’m pretty sure that Gone With The Wind was number 1, which was obvious considering that it had multiple re-releases. That’s the one advantage that older movies had were the many decades of re-releases. The EW survey also tried to take into account video rental viewings which I thought was a little suspect. I’m not sure how you can do anything more than a rough estimate based on that.

  • http://www.catharticentertainment.com rus in chicago

    aaaah, Sean I give you the answer over and over and you don’t include it – you break my heart. Your article is mislead because you don’t include the fact that this film is overtaking the number one film by the SAME DIRECTOR! you have to weight that in to the argument and look at it.

    I gave you the answer, “James Cameron is a modern P.T. Barnum, the master showman. He gives the world what it didn’t know it wanted” He has this unique ability to be ahead of the curve and give the world a film that they didn’t know they wanted. Everyone thought Titanic was a crazy, overpriced idea but he proved he knew there was an appeal for that cinematic formula. He was a madman whipping his crew and studioheads to get the film done his way – even forgoing his salary and taking backend particpation.

    He did it again on Avatar, pushing the technology forward, fighting off the critics and studioheads. And he gave the world a cinematic experience they didn’t know they wanted. That explains your Tipping Point.

    I think Cameron most have sold his soul to the devil.

  • Liney

    Yeah, good list. I’d say quite simply that a combination of 1 and 4 lead to good word of mouth, and hence 6. The extent of this was aided by 3.

    ONE MORE IMPORTANT THING THOUGH…the marketing. Cast your mind back to when the film came out…very few critics were privy to early screenings, and those that saw it a little early had a strict gagging order. Now, cast your mind back Sean to how, apart from a few bloggers breaking rank, you mentioned that the Sun newspaper were somehow able to print a review before the gagging order was lifted?

    The Sun is the most popular ‘newspaper’ in the UK (despite being crap!)…read more by the ‘everyman’ than the intellectual film buff. Who owns The Sun? Rupert Murdoch. And who owns 20th Century Fox (who released Avatar and had a lot riding on it)? That’s right: Rupert Murdoch.

    Every day for a week leading up to the review, The Sun ran a double page special on Avatar, and then when the review appeared on the Friday, suprise surprise it was 5 stars (and I think they called it “the film of the decade”).

    I’m not sure how much this affected things overall, but it didn’t hurt, and it gave the film the kick started it needed to generate good word of mouth on a massive scale.

    I really liked Avatar and take my hat off to James Cameron, so I have no axe to grind…but I’d be very sceptical of any reviews of Fox films appearing in The Sun in future. Obviously Rupert Murdoch owns other media sources (Fox News for instance), but living in the UK I dodn’t know if this was utilised in the US to similar effect.

  • http://www.catharticentertainment.com rus in chicago

    good effort, but:
    United Kingdom and Ireland and Malta box office is $105,706,880

    thats only 5% of total and countries like France and China are much more significant, actually its killing in every corner of the world, South America, Asia, Russia…just think if more in the middle east got to see it.

    “gave the world the film they didn’t know they wanted”

  • Liney

    To clarify, I wasn’t suggesting that a campain and positive review in the UK newspaper The Sun resulted in the film taking the money that it has worldwide!!!
    I’m well aware that I live on small island with a small population. But I thought it worthy of note to:

    a) answer the question that Sean posed in December as to how the Sun was able to post a review before anyone else.

    b) mention the fact that Rupert Murdoch has a vested interest in the film succeeding financially, and he owns a number of news outlets throughout the world, many of which cover and review films.

    and

    c) on a more general level, raise the point that we need to be sceptical about some sources even with regards to film reviews etc. It was obvious before the Sun published their review that it would be 5 stars etc etc. This is actually one argument in favour of independent film podcasts etc! Many people bash the bloggers, but at least many of them are truly independent in their views.

  • http://www.seandwyer.net Sean

    I think it’s an interesting point, Liney… I didn’t realize The Sun was owned by Fox, and that definitely seems a bit suspect.

    Of course, with that first wave of press screenings, there were a ton of bloggers who were very positive about it as well.

  • Liney

    Yeah…it might sound like paranoid conspiracy, but I have a friend who is quite high up in News International here in London – they are owned by Murdoch and publish both The Sun and The Times in the UK – and he gave it to me straight. The hype went into overdrive in The Sun in the run up to the release.

    Like I say, I enjoyed Avatar, and don’t think it would have made all that money if it was sh*t, so this is not something I’m angry about or anything. But if in the summer Fox have a big film coming out, up against another big film from another company, I’d be interested to see the reviews for the two films in The Sun…

  • Ben

    Fuck 3D

  • http://www.area-10.net Curt

    Sean, it’s interesting that of your 6 reasons, only one (#4) was a “cinemah” attribute. The rest were all business and marketing. Unfortunately for me, #4 eliminated Avatar from ever making my all-time SF best list. The blue people made it shaky but the story finished it off.

    No A-list stars? That’s the secret standard in Five Gold Standards that make great SF films.

    Props to Liney for pointing out the Murdoch Sun connection. You know that was exactly News Corps strategy and the actual review was a foregone conclusion.
    Just watch MI5 to see how devious the Brits are.

  • Jason

    I can say I have not added to Avatar’s success. I haven’t seen it, nor do I plan on to… it just simply does not interest me in the slightest. MAYBE I’ll add it to my Netflix instant queue when it becomes available 6 months from now. Paying up to $30 for myself and my girlfriend to go see this movie is not as ideal as goin’ out and buying a new blue-ray movie for the same price, which I can watch whenever I want, as many times as I want.

  • http://badnewsfromouterspace.blogspot.com/ Michael F.

    “…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).”

    Great point. Average movie at best.

  • PEter

    Great article Sean.

    Simply put it wasn’t a great film, but it was an awesome movie. And that’s what most people go to the theatre for. Like current art in general, highbrow is niche and narrow. ‘A Serious Man’ or ‘There will be Blood’ are great pieces of narrative art, but I can have a better experience watching those at home with friends that can appreciate them on similar levels instead of in a theatre with people who could care less. That type of theatre experience puts me off watching ‘Art Films’ in the cinema…. As for that youtube review, I loved that dudes clever breakdown and dissertation on Phantom Menace, but that was made with ten years of hindsight after that films decrepitude (though I personally hated it the first viewing). The backlash against Avatar is getting extremely annoying — Pray to God it doesn’t win Best picture.

  • http://www.filmjunk.com David Jongewaard

    I rarely go to the Movies–too expensive and my wife says she can’t stay awake. So we rent DVD’s and she falls asleep on the couch at home. However, I love watching flicks. I had seen the hype about how AVATAR was made and I knew, as you noted, that I had to “pay to play” to see it in 3-D. I went alone. It blew me away! Now I really want my wife to come with me so that I can see it again and enjoy her reaction as well. She’s not going to sleep through this one! Albeit valid points, none of your last five reasons counted with me. It was all about experiencing the technology which I could enjoy only in the theater. And it didn’t disappoint. Now, when I hear media commentaries on AVATAR, they all say the same thing: “AVATAR represents a paradigm shift that has changed movie making forever.” I believe that.

  • brian

    why did AVATAR succeed where noone else did? Almost all the reasons given are not the reason…noone can answer that with certainty, but you need to factor in its popularity with audiences around the world, something i suspect youve not done…..and yes it is the story, + great effects, + the messsages and the topicality.
    will it be remembered in 10 years? Absolutely. As for the sophisticates hate of AVATAR…tough!

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  • Anon

    The reasons for the success:

    James Cameron (#1 reason)
    Terrific graphics plus 3D
    Action/Adventure
    PG-13

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