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Box office stories (II): Avatar (2009)

The world re-release of Avatar, whose first commercial run in 2009 and 2010 made it the biggest hit of all time, the time is right for a new installment in our Box Office Stories section. How, and why, James Cameron was able to repeat the success of Titanic12 years after that, and when everyone pointed to his apparent professional retirement.

The premiere of Avatar December 2009 was the culmination of one of the biggest doubts that has flowed fluidly among science fiction fans since the late 1990s: why James Cameronafter its overwhelming success with Titanic, did he stop making movies? Of course we know he didn’t stand still, here are his documentaries and various projects, but his career as a film director was never hectic: 6 films between 1984 and 1997. The real deal was: maybe not Did you know how to move on after achieving the biggest hit of all time? did he look unable to surprise again? The matter was closed, savagely, when between 2009 and 2010, in some historic months at the box office, Avatar smashed Titanic’s record (nearly 1 billion more) to crown herself as the new queen.

However, if we go back to the years before the release of Avatar, we will realize that its immense success began in a similar way to other box office totems: to look, what is called to look, did not seem to be an earthquake. A hit, most likely, but the greatest of all time? Absolutely not. Same story as with Shark, Star Wars or the Titanic itself. The news about James Cameron’s new project, full of technology that could not be afforded in the 90s (this is an article about the box office but it is worth remembering that the chicha de Avatar it was Weta’s motion capture but the 3D thing took all the fame), brought us to its release at the end of 2009. And at the outset it’s worth remembering that Avatar is, in its own right, the last long-running box office blockbuster.

Far from the one-shot release model but extended over time for many, many months, as well as multiple re-releases, which dominated between shark and the eighties and nineties, Avatar it was released in a period between that format and the current one where the first weekend we can predict the final gross at the expense of a 5-6 week window where almost the entire final amount is collected. To sum up: Avatar it was on the billboard for months and months and, as we said, no one was clear about its final success. In fact, his debut was successful but a little modest…

Avatar (01)

Avatar was released on December 16, 2009 with a domestic release (US + Canada) of $77.0 million. At that time, these mind-blowing debuts that they inaugurated did not yet take place The Avengers in 2012 but 77 million was not at all impressive: at the time it was right in the league of the sixth installment of Harry Potter (77.1 million) and below previous films (and hurt by inflation) such as Episode II (80.0), The passion of Christ (83.8), the same year’s installment of the X-Men saga (85.0), the Matrix sequel (91.7), the fourth Indiana Jones (100.1), shrek 2 (108.0) and very far from Spider-Man 3 (151.1) and the one who had the memory at that time: The Dark Knight (158.4 million). And yet he polished them all. And the same globally.

To understand these relatively low initial figures, we must refer to a concept that was already dominant at the time and today is total: pre-existing franchises. Back then it was common, and today it is almost 100% of the picture, blockbusters used to fall well into the category of sequel, prequel, remake, adaptation of previous material etc. In any case, a common denominator: previous fans who are the ones who flock to the first weekend. Avatar was (like that origin by Christopher Nolan) 100% original. Beyond the fans of the director, the genre or those who were eager for the promotional machine, Avatar had no previous fans. What happened was similar to what happened with Titanic: the reception and especially word of mouth was huge. And with two key additions: technological curiosity and an average ticket price higher than usual.

Avatar (2)

If we consider, domestically and globally, the declines (percentage of box office loss from one weekend to another) of Avatarthese were ridiculously low: below 30% well into 2010. Today we speculate 50% drops for the second weekend as a very positive thing… Avatar began to accumulate exceptionally stable million weekends that reversed the situation in just a few weeks: on January 1 it was already more than 300 million in North America. It reached 500 two weeks later and it was clear to all of us that the memory of Titanic, then an incredible 600 million, was going to fall. And it fell at the beginning of February. In the spring, its success finally slowed to land at the original 749.7 million.

Globally, the surprise was even greater. In the domestic going from 600 to 749 million was wild but on a global level we are talking about something even more apotheous. The maintenance was done all over the planet to the point where it reached 1000 million in just 19 days (44 days before its predecessor!), 1500 in 32 days and only 47 to reach 2000 million. At this point it not only exceeded the historic 1843 million Titanic but it was, of course, the first film to reach the 2000s. At this point, also driven by a global phenomenon (75% of its box office was international when in the 80s and 90s many American blockbusters barely reached 50%), she became the new queen with 2749.0 million.

Was that word of mouth enough to get that box office? This is where we have to somewhat reduce this phenomenon. A double factor, intertwined, was that in this case there was a strong sense of technological curiosity (especially for 3D) and a higher average ticket price than usual. The first thing explains, in part, the elusive relationship between this box office and a fan phenomenon far from that of sagas like Star Wars or the Marvel universe. The second allowed very high box office numbers. It is not risky to say that this technological curiosity made it possible to soften the impact of these prices (in the middle of the global crisis) by relating this event to a price higher than usual. A special situation that should not fool us: it was an extraordinary success. Less than Titanicat all levels (once we adjust for inflation and take into account the social phenomenon), but which closed the debate: James Cameron came back after 12 years and did it again.

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