After years of hype, loads of trailers and TV spots, and an unprecedented pre-release teaser screening in more than 100 theaters, James Cameron's Avatar opens next Friday with a single question hanging in the air: What in the hell is going on with the blue cat people? At the blog Overthinking It, the poster "fenzel" speaks for much of the Comic-Con crowd in arguing that " Avatar is going to suck" because "[c]ats with human boobs suck." Drew Magary of Deadspin opines that the blue-aliens-riding-dragons flick could be the longest, biggest flop ever. And after attending an "Avatar Day" preview, Slate's Daniel Engber wrote that while the "3-D effects do look pretty darn good," the film's CGI scenes bear an unfortunate and uncanny resemblance to the Jar Jar Binks-era Star Wars movies.
Executives at Fox shouldn't break out the cyanide just yet. The movie is apparently getting Golden Globes buzz, and Harry Knowles Ain't It Cool News is a big fan. (Then again, Harry Knowles is a big fan of everything.) So, will Avatar be a blockbuster or a flop—a blue-cat Star Wars or a blue-cat Battlefield Earth?
My money's on blockbuster. Supporting evidence for the cat-people-as-cash-cow theory can be found on the Hollywood Stock Exchange. As of Thursday evening, Avatar is trading at 187.09 on HSX, a prediction market that Anita Elberse, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, says has a proven track record of prognosticating box-office revenues. That 187.09 figure means HSX traders believe the movie will make close to $187 million in its first four weeks of domestic release—a figure that would put the movie well on its way to profitability.
In addition to online betting markets, search-engine traffic also provides a glimpse at a movie's earning potential. In a paper (PDF) published earlier this year, Duncan J. Watts and his team at Yahoo Research wrote that "search activity alone is indicative of box-office revenue, and remains so even weeks in advance of a movie's release." Asked to do a quick-and-dirty analysis of Avatar's prospects, Watts says his models—which don't consider factors like Avatar's opening on IMAX screens and the size of the film's marketing blitz—predict a $65 million to $84 million first-weekend gross. He notes that search volume for Avatar at this stage—one week before release—is about the same as the count for Wolverine, a movie that earned $87 million on its opening weekend.
The Yahoo Research numbers track with what traditional analysts are saying. On Wednesday, Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere quoted a box-office seer who believes Avatar will make about $70 million on its opening weekend—right around what Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King took in back in 2003. For Wells, the question is whether the film will be a hit or a mega-hit. "Who isn't going to want to see this film? No one." he writes. "But how many will want to see twice or thrice? That's the question." Variety's David Cohen agrees, telling me that while the movie "could lose money for the studio" because of its huge budget, "it's almost inconceivable that Avatar would be an all-out bomb."
Blockbusterdom can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The studios select the properties they deem the most promising, then promote them with ginormous advertising campaigns and open them on the most-lucrative opening weekends. Avatar, which arrives on Dec. 18, will surely benefit from holiday moviegoing practices. Movies that open around Christmas tend to have a higher "multiple"—that is, a larger final gross as compared to the opening-weekend take—than non-Yuletide releases. Even a smaller-than-expected opening weekend for Avatar, then, could balloon into mega-dollars by New Year's Day as a bored populace struggles to fill time on a week off from work.
The movie's three-dimensionality should also help its cash flow. Avatar, the first live-action blockbuster of the present 3-D age, should open on about 2,500 3-D screens in the United States. Thanks to the 30 percent to 40 percent premium on tickets to 3-D movies, that extra dimension will do wonders for Avatar's bottom line. Curiosity should also benefit the blue cats. Variety's Cohen, who's writing a book on 3-D, says that while animated titles have done the bulk of 3-D business, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Beowulf both made more money than their opening weekend grosses seemed to predict. "Journey was a little kids' movie with a modest budget that went a long way toward proving that there's a huge consumer demand for these pictures," he says.
Even if the feline humanoids don't wow American audiences, Avatar should still print money overseas. Judging by recent history, the movie'sdomestic take will play a smallish role in its ultimate profitability. 2012 has made 78 percent of its total gross—more than $500 million—via international ticket sales. Foreign audiences have traditionally loved Cameronian spectacle— Terminator 2, True Lies, and Titanic all made more than 60 percent of their lifetime gross overseas. The world-at-large also appears smitten with 3-D. Consider Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, which made $200 million at home and close to $700 million abroad. Avatar will debut on more than 16,000 screens internationally, with many locales building up 3-D infrastructure specifically for Avatar. Bring on the pesos and yuan.
If you're looking for indicators of floppery, consider that Avatar is an original story. Of the 50 highest-grossing films of the decade, Hancock and The Day After Tomorrow are the only live-action movies that are not either sequels or based on existing properties. * Cameron isn't telling some avant-garde story, though. Avatar, a sci-fi action flick with romantic elements, fills in pretty much every box on the blockbuster checklist.
The one weak point here may be the romance angle. Avatar will need repeat business to be a true smash. Obviously, most of that will depend on whether the movie is any good. It will also require, though, that Avatar appeal to women. In Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio kissed Kate Winslet. In Avatar, Sam Worthington smooches a cat lady. An industry analyst who's seen the studio tracking data tells me that the XX crowd has yet to cotton to the latter image. Compare that to Sherlock Holmes, coming out on Christmas Day, which appears to be a true four-quadrant picture, appealing to under-25 men, over-25 men, under-25 women, and over-25 women.
Which leads to one final Avatar question: Is it too late to make all the cat girls look like Kate Winslet?
Correction, Dec. 11, 2009: This piece originally said that of "the 50 highest-grossing films of the decade, Hancock is the only live-action movie that's not either a sequel or based on an existing property." The Day After Tomorrow also meets those specifications. (Return to the corrected sentence.)