Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Avatar: Anatomy of a $2 Billion+ Hit

Michael here. Let me posit the following thought: James Cameron is in possession of the formula for a multi-billion dollar movie. He simply gets it at a level that no other director approaches.

While Avatar was in production, Cameron said in an interview that he hadn’t forgotten the lessons he’d learned from the success of Titanic. Indeed, while the unparalleled-until-now success of Titanic initially surprised Cameron, I believe he soon came to understand exactly why it became the highest grossing movie of all time.

Avatar is the fruit of that understanding. And let me be clear: every "big" movie that Cameron does from this point forward has a very good chance of becoming a $2 billion+ worldwide hit. Take the following elements, add water, and let the billions roll in:

1) An Unprecedented Budget. This is a key element. In order to bring an audience into another world as completely as Titanic or Avatar do, you need a budget that will be able to realize the director’s vision completely. To make a billion dollar hit, the “other world” must astound and awe the audience. The only way to do this is to create something authentic and amazing that they haven’t seen before - something that creates a sense of wonder - and this means a budget big enough to create something new. Titanic’s $200 million budget was unprecedented, and Avatar’s budget, although uncertain to those outside the production, is certainly at least as high as that of any movie to date. To win big, you have to bet big. Cameron went “all in” with both Titanic and Avatar, and he won both times.

2) Escapism. Titanic transports you to another place and time, as does Avatar. Both films intricately construct a specific world, then invite the audience to come along for the ride. Movies inherently are about escapism. The more tangible the world on the screen, the more the audience will want to come back again and again. 3D is perfect for increasing the escapism factor of a film. Any wannabe $2billion+ grosser from now on has to be 3D.

3) Characters. Casting and chemistry are key, but the characters start on the page. Of course we have to care about the characters, but how this is achieved is the question. The answer is that we have to relate to them. We have to see something of ourselves in them. People all over the world right now are relating to Jake Sully….maybe they, like him, were told they couldn’t do something. Or perhaps they relate to his “normal guy”ness – the fact that he isn’t an egghead scientist or corporate bureaucrat, but just a good guy who has been bludgeoned by life’s circumstances. In any case, Cameron makes relatable characters. Jack and Rose from Titanic are eminently relatable: Jack the poor boy with a zest for life, Rose the trapped rich girl. The audience needs a “way in” to a movie, and both Titanic and Avatar provide it. In fact, the very concept of an avatar is the perfect gateway for an audience: as soon as Jake enters his avatar body, the audience does the same. There’s a reason Cameron makes the first shot of Jake’s avatar waking up be from the first-person: he wants the audience to feel what it is like to wake up in an avatar body, and to attach to Jake’s character even more firmly.

4) Setups and Payoffs, set to music. Those moments in a movie where you get shivers? Those most likely come when something in the movie pays off. And most of the time these moments coincide with catchy music cues that add to the emotion of the scene. Examples of payoff moments: The thanator bowing its head for Neytiri. Jake taming the great leonopteryx. Neytiri cradling human Jake in her arms. Quaritch making his daring escape from the flaming Dragon in his AMP suit. These are emotional moments that pay off setups from earlier in the movie (for instance, Jake’s escape from the thanator earlier in the movie sets up how fearsome a predator it is, making when Neytiri gets to ride it such a powerful moment). Cameron is a master at setup and payoffs. In Titanic, the entire movie sets up the moment where we see Rose sleeping, surrounded by pictures of her living an exciting and fulfilling life. Then we enter her dream (or does she die?), and she is back on the Titanic. Cue music and tears from the audience, and 1.8 billion dollars.

For a movie to make over a billion dollars worldwide, it needs to weave its setups and payoffs with great dexterity. Every scene in the movie should be setting something up or paying something off. Cameron is a master at dexterously incorporating necessary exposition into his screenplays: witness Jake’s video logs, or the modern-day bookends of Titanic, both of which perform setup/payoff duties while providing necessary exposition. Not a shot is wasted in Cameron’s films. Which leads us to…

5) Density. Titanic and Avatar (and The Dark Knight) reward multiple viewings because they are packed with information. Every shot is filled with stuff happening. Every line of dialogue provides some new piece of information. And when all this is whizzing past at 24 frames per second, some of it is bound to go under-noticed or underappreciated on the first viewing. When both Titanic and Avatar ended, both times I immediately thought to myself, “I have to see this again!” This is because I not only thoroughly enjoyed what I just saw and wanted to experience the same emotions again, but I knew that I missed stuff and that future viewings would yield even greater rewards.

6) Story. Tell a story that works on an archetypical, mythic level. The Hero’s Journey for Avatar, a Greek tragedy for Titanic. In both cases, they are textbook examples of story types that have persisted for millennia because they simply work.

So, the recipe for a $2 billion movie seems simple, right? Yes, but the devil is in the details. Actually making a film that contains the above elements is an extremely difficult task. I hope, however, that studio executives take a look at Titanic and Avatar and decide to fund more super expensive, envelope-pushing projects.

What is certain, however, is that James Cameron gets it and that I can't wait to see Avatar again. Oh, and I'd bet his next project will be pretty cool too.

So what similarities do you see between these two mega-blockbusters? And what other factors are required to make a movie click with worldwide audiences to the extent that Avatar and Titanic did?

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Jim Dorey
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