Can James Cameron’s striking ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ pull off a box-office smash?
Featuring a stunning blend of visual effects and cutting-edge motion capture technology, Avatar: The Way of Water is touted as a cinematic experience unlike any seen in years, but it is by far James Cameron’s greatest yet Risk, say industry analysts.
Disney’s second film in a planned five-part saga opens to massive expectations across North America this weekend. Can it attract enough audiences to balance its budget, which is said to be in excess of $250 million? And will the sequel eventually match the $2.9 billion of the original film released in 2009?
Whether the Ontario-born filmmaker, now based in New Zealand, can write another theatrical success story depends on several factors, observers say: How the film’s use of underwater performance capture and 3D technology evolves under the current cinema model will translate into profits, whether it will become a must-see sensation and whether it can buck the media trend that is beginning to prioritize streaming in a pandemic age.
“‘Avatar: the Way of Water’ is poised for a ‘Titanic’-sized debut,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior Comscore media analyst, referring to the filmmaker’s 1997 film, which premiered on its first weekend grossed around $28 million and went on to make $2.2 billion in ticket sales.
“James Cameron’s films have always capitalized on long-term success and playability rather than huge opening-weekend pop.”
Dergarabedian added that since some ticket sales are also made for premium formats such as 3D and IMAX, the film will benefit from a stronger revenue stream.
Overall, Dergarabedian thinks it unwise to underestimate the power of film to overcome future obstacles.
In Cameron’s hands, the first “Avatar,” a fantasy epic about a paraplegic Marine torn between Earth and an alien world of intelligent humanoids from a planet called Pandora, propelled the popularity of 3D display and motion capture technology when it was new.
In The Way of Water, alien-turned-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his blue-skinned counterpart Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) have become parents to three children fighting against human invaders.
Cameron said he drew his own experiences as a father for the film, which introduces viewers to the next generation of young performers.
One of these new characters in the franchise is played by actress Bailey Bass, who is now 19 when Avatar was released and 12 when she auditioned for the next three films.
Bass plays Tsireya, the daughter of the Metkayina leaders – a group of water-based humanoids who befriend the Sully family.
Bass believes Avatar 2’s broad appeal to new generations stems in part from “FOMO” – the fear of missing out – and a desire to be a part of the popular event of the moment.
“It’s the fact that you have to go to the theater to see this movie, and its magnificence will make you look back at someone and just be like, ‘Hey, have you seen that movie?'” Bass said during a face to face job interview in toronto. “Like that urgency and just the community of loving a movie. I think because of streaming, we didn’t really experience it like we did with Blockbuster.”
Aside from Avatar’s franchise ambitions, Cameron’s use of 3D motion capture technology remains the new film’s main selling point.
Its use of 48 frames per second, twice the standard, gives a smoother and more realistic glow to images as characters’ bodies move through digital landscapes and take part in action scenes.
Steve Levitan, a media advocate, film producer, and lecturer at Toronto Metropolitan University, isn’t entirely convinced that “The Way of Water” can reach such a large audience using this technology, but it does suggest viewers will feel that you have seen it before.
“We are in an era of VR and advanced AI. “Avatar” was doing all of that when YouTube was just taking off, not to mention Netflix and streaming,” Levitan said.
“A big part of the viewership and appeal of Avatar was a 3D experience like you’ve never seen before, and I don’t know, have you bought a 3D TV? I hope you didn’t.”
The film’s reviews top 80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and Cameron’s technical credibility and attention to detail are already being hailed amid rather mixed reviews of the film’s core story elements.
Levitan feels that the storyline of the first Avatar was largely forgettable and didn’t have a large cultural footprint – unlike Cameron’s Alien and Terminator franchises.
“Will it be a more entertaining film? Will it be something people will talk about and not forget?” said Levitan. “If you asked me the names of the main characters in the original ‘Avatar,’ I couldn’t tell you.”
Irene S. Berkowitz, a media researcher and lecturer at Toronto Metropolitan University, believes that a transforming industry that has experienced additional challenges during the pandemic will also do The Way of Water no favors.
“The shift to streaming was not triggered by the pandemic; the pandemic has accelerated what was already happening by a decade,” Berkowitz said. “While ticket prices have skyrocketed, attendance has fallen and 500 screens have been closed since the pandemic.”
Additionally, Berkowitz adds that asking today’s viewers to get through three hours and 12 minutes of the film in today’s climate of options, let alone take a second or third ride, is a lot.
“Aside from young teens, who would do anything to get away from home, most of us would rather not watch content when someone else’s deadline is up,” Berkowitz said. “It’s mostly generational — location-based entertainment experiences are declining.”
Regardless of the obstacles the film faces, Cameron has a historically proven track record of defying box office adversity.
“It should be interesting to see what happens if a $300-$400 million budget can make more than $2 billion,” adds Berkowitz. “Yet, few other films can sustain this trend.”
– Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press
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