I’ve spent more time this year discussing box office numbers than I’d normally care to. I don’t consider the amount of money a movie makes as a benchmark for whether it is any good, otherwise all bar the first of the Michael Bay Transformers movies would be seen as better movies than Inception, and you might as well be cursing out my mother by saying that. But when a movie rakes in serious record breaking cash, it deserves some attention. In 2009 James Cameron took the world by storm with the release of Avatar. Boasting jaw dropping visuals and masterful use of the then fresh phenomenon of 3D, it soared beyond all expectations to become the highest grossing film of all time. That was six years ago.
Now? It’s basically a footnote. It has been years since it could be considered culturally relevant, with pop culture moving onto the next big thing and to franchises with more staying power. It’s incredible to look at the list of best grossing movies filled to the brim with major pop culture franchises and see the top two spots being filled by two movies that are really just that, movies. Depending on how you consider Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (the movie itself is mostly forgotten in pop culture, but Alice herself is pretty iconic), you might not find another straight ‘movie’ until Inception at #45. That is the power of the franchise, and makes Avatar an even more curious case.
I’m not the first to address Avatar’s lack of staying power as a piece of pop culture. Scott Mendelson brought it up last year in an article for Forbes. I hadn’t watched the movie for years myself, and only thought about how it disappeared from pop culture after it was referenced in an episode of Running Man. What I do want to consider though is the future. After the immense success of Avatar back in 2009, James Cameron set to work on furthering the world of Pandora, and is currently working on three sequels, tentatively due for yearly releases between 2017 and 2019. Filming hasn’t started yet but the scripts and written and pre-production for the films are underway.
But does the world care? When it was announced that Disney were bringing us a new Star Wars trilogy, the fandom rejoiced. Batman v Superman was met with excitement, and despite the concern that follows some franchise sequels, they at least get a reaction. But Avatar has been flying under the radar for years now and any news (not that there’s been much recently) is drowned out by bigger franchises. It has its fans but relative to the success it once had Avatar is nothing more than a trivia answer right now, especially since its lead Sam Worthington never amounted to the hype he was getting.
It is generally expected that a sequel will do better than the original. A strong movie will do decent numbers at the box office, and pick up interest through word of mouth and home release. By the time a sequel is out, the film draws in the original movie-goers plus the new fans it has picked up along the way, and so on and so forth. If those numbers drop, especially substantially, the company generally begins to weigh up if it is worth continuing the process, deciding whether to put the franchise on hold or if the franchise is Spiderman, rebooting it. Now honestly nobody (except maybe Cameron himself) expects Avatar 2 to break the record the original Avatar set. Since that release some big name contenders have stepped up to the plate, but the closest: Jurassic World (who last week took the lead over the first Avengers movie), is off the mark by a whopping $1.2 billion.
It’s easy to forget just how astronomical the Avatar record is. $2.78 billion dollars.You can combine the numbers the original Avengers did with Iron Man 3, which itself is in the top ten all time, and it still doesn’t match Avatar. Combining the original with the sequel Age of Ultron eclipses Avatar, but not by a whole lot considering the phenomenon the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been. Nobody’s cracked $2 billion apart from James Cameron, and Titanic still sits well above anything else that’s tried so far (The Force Awakens will be the biggest challenger).
It seems crazy now that Avatar was as successful as it was, but there was some serious hype around the movie’s release. The movie utilised the 3D effect better than any movie that came before it and perhaps better than any since, totally immersing the audience into the breathtaking and truly beautiful world of Pandora. It was a movie that had to been seen in cinema to appreciate it, and the higher priced Imax especially benefited off of this kind of hype. Part of the reason why the hype died down after it left cinemas was because those same visuals didn’t translate in the same way at home. While some people can afford massive cinema rooms, most people are working off of a modest sized TV or laptop. Blu-Ray and 3D Blu-Ray should have helped close the gap, but it becomes harder to hide the movie’s flaws when you’re not so distracted by the visuals. It went from spectacle to a three hour long movie on a shoestring plot that was famously mocked for being Dances With Wolves or Pocahontas in space.
This is where the problem lies. When the sequel arrives it’ll be eight years since the first movie hit cinemas. In that time the hype and love for Avatar has well and truly gone and it’ll be entering a cinematic bloodbath the likes it never had to worry about last decade. Sure it had to deal with the last Harry Potter and Transformers, but outside of that its biggest franchise competition was from Ice Age and Twilight. In 2017 it has to deal with the first Justice League movie, two MCU films, another Toy Story, a Fast and Furious franchise that has now proven itself as a big hitter, and more frighteningly, it’s expected December release date potentially puts it head to head with Star Wars Episode 8.
All of those franchises would be considered more culturally relevant and valuable than Avatar right now. Which is a problem. But what is worse is that they have committed themselves to producing and filming three sequels back to back to back, which means if they discover in 2017 that people aren’t that interested in Avatar anymore, then they’re too far in to protect themselves from a tremendous fall. It’s one thing to film movies like Harry Potter and Hunger Games back to back, both franchises were following a tight release schedule and remained in the public eye, and already had dedicated fanbases through the source material. Avatar has none of that. It has a fanbase, but how many people who saw the first movie nearly a decade ago will bother to return to it?
There is a very real chance that in a decade’s time, when young kids are looking at box office numbers (I’m sure there will be some kids that care about that), they’ll look at Avatar and wonder what the hell it is and how it got to the top. At least Titanic has history to back it up. No matter how big Star Wars is, or any other franchise out there for that matter, matching the magical $2.7 billion mark that Avatar set in 2009 is a near impossible task, at least until inflation hits us and cinema ticket prices rise even more. It is perfectly feasible that mark isn’t matched for another decade or more, it took twelve years for Titanic to be toppled after all.
It might be premature to write off Avatar just yet. Once the movie is closer to release the hype train will begin, and James Cameron might be able to work his magic again. And his track record speaks for itself, he’s hardly put a foot wrong since The Terminator back in 1984. All it might take is one mesmerising trailer, and people might flock back to the cinemas to see more of Pandora. If you’re going to watch another Avatar movie, you might as well do it at the cinema where the strengths will shine. But while they might flock back to see if the sequel can capture the heart of the original, will they really come back two more times after that?
The question is, what constitutes success or failure for those in charge? Will they be happy to the sequels to fall into more reasonable numbers hovering around $1 billion? If so, then they have a fair chance of succeeding. $1 billion is still impressive but it’s not the Everest it was when Avatar passed it in 2009. But it seems hard for the sequel to do less than half of what the original made and still consider it a success, especially when you factor in the years of planning that have gone into these sequels.
It’s a question that won’t be answered for another two years, but it will be fascinating to see whether the Avatar sequels can establish a grander world that people buy into, making the Na’vi more culturally valuable, or whether the series will crash and burn as the world lost interest in Pandora. The movie took over the cinema going world but left just as quickly, and the success never even lead to a strong push to make the franchise be more than what it was. It was just a movie, and that will challenge the sequels as they arrive amidst an already full cinematic schedule.
Link to Scott Mendelson’s article if you’re interested in reading more: