Popcorn flicks. Escapist fare. Event films. Summertime is the time of the blockbuster. In honour of the summer movie season, I revisit the biggest blockbuster of all time.
At this time last year James Cameron's ecological sci-fi 3D epic Avatar had just finished up an impressive box office run and established its place in filmdom history by become the highest grossing picture of all time, both domestically and internationally. More eye popping than its effects was the fact that the film that Avatar usurped the crown from was Cameron's own Titanic (1997) reiterating his "King of The World" status.
Now I don't deny Avatar's contribution to film technology. What Avatar is to 3D is arguably what Gone With The Wind (1939) was to color. Neither film invented the technique, but it showed the potential and predicted the future – time will tell in Avatar's case. But when I hear, "Highest grossing film of all time..." I get certain connotations in my head. Thoughts like, the film is of some sort of cultural significance. Or thoughts that the film should be... how can I say... good.
Let me be fair, Avatar is a well made movie and I wish all big budget blockbusters had the ambition that Cameron intended instead of the thoughtless visual diarrhea that appears on screen every summer. But seriously, I have yet to meet a single person who LOVES this movie. Everyone I talk to says pretty much the same thing. "It was pretty good. Story was a little ordinary but the effects were terrific."
When I saw the film for the first time in December of 2009, I had the same reaction. I thought it was gorgeous to look at, but it didn't affect me very much on an emotional level. I didn't think the movie was bad, just mediocre. But mediocre movies can make a ton of cash. That's nothing new. How else could Michael Bay keep finding work?
Many films with built in fan bases are virtually quality proof. I've heard many people complain about the Twilight films being awful but I'm very aware of their enormous fan base. I know where that money is coming from; the Twi-hards. Built in fan bases don't usually equal longevity at the box office, however. Once the desired demographic has seen the product, attendance drops dramatically. After Avatar's strong opening weekend, I thought it would drop off because I didn't think it would connect with anyone outside of sci-fi fans. But Avatar's grosses depreciated at a very slow pace. Translation: the movie had good word of mouth! Clearly more than just fan-boys and Cameronheads liked this film.
As well it should. A movie doesn't become the highest grossing movie of all time by just keying in to one demographic. It has to be a "4 Quadrant" picture, meaning it has to appeal to males and females, younger and older than 35 years old. Furthermore, true super blockbusters tend to get two types of business on top of the average movie goer: #1- repeat viewers, and #2 - people who don't normally watch movies.
Just think of long-playing movies in recent years like Forrest Gump (1994), Titanic (1997), or My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), all of which attracted the type of viewers described above.
Where does that leave Avatar? I'm not so concerned with the fact that a movie I didn't care that much for made a bazillion dollars. This happens all the time. I felt The Dark Knight was overrated, but at least I knew passionate fans of that movie. I understood the grosses. Avatar's success mystified me because I don't know anyone who thought the movie was great. The general opinion of the film doesn't match up with the way it made money. Mediocre films don't have legs at the box office. They blow their load in the first couple weeks and go to sleep early. Avatar stuck around for months! Where are all the Avatards? Do they exist? If they do, I've never met one yet. Where are all these Avatarded people who turned this movie into supposedly the most popular of all time?
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Gone With The Wind (1939), The Sound of Music (1965), The Godfather (1972), Star Wars (1977), ET (1982). These are a few films that have held the title of "highest grossing picture of all time". People love these films. Many people would name some of these titles as their favourite movie. Would anyone do the same for Avatar? Is Avatar anyone's favourite movie?
I just don't get it.
So I'm going to try and figure it out myself. I have numerous theories:
This one's a no brainer. Higher ticket prices = higher grosses. Most theatre chains require a surcharge for that extra dimension in your movie going experience. The extra few dollars are not for the required glasses as some people believe. To cover the conversion costs from 35mm film projectors to the digital cinema projectors needed for 3D films, theatre chains need to charge more. So those glasses you used to watch Tron: Legacy won't save you any money if you bring them back to watch the new Pirates of the Caribbean.
Much like inflation, 3D ticket prices skew the grosses, along with the public's perception of popularity. But unlike inflation which is a natural uncontrolled occurrence over time, the 3D surcharge is a controllable variable with immediate results. Hence, following the success of Avatar, studios raced to convert films shot in 2D to 3D for a quick cheap cash grab with so-so results. See: Clash of the Titans.
A major effect indirectly related to dollar sings is that 3D movies provide moviegoers with an experience that one cannot get at home (at least until 3D televisions become more popular). This is where comparing 3D to color actually has resonance. In the 1940s and 1950s, the motion picture industry was suffering through diminished attendances because of the advent of television. Folks could now stay home and watch photographed plays at no charge at all. How did the industry counter? By offering the public something they couldn't get at home: wider screens, epic productions, and of course, color.
Three dimensional images are currently what the movies are offering us that we can't get at home, at least for the time being. And clearly the best example of this offer was (and still is) Avatar, a film with a reputation of being unworthy without the 3rd dimension.
Avatar was the first film in many years to boast a truly unique movie going experience that required people to leave their homes and pay money to get it. And that's quite a feat in today's extremely competitive fight for the fickle consumer's entertainment dollar.
Sometimes a movie comes out and people expect it to be big. Oftentimes people think they should see it because of that very reason. They confuse "big" with good.
If I haven't heard of the film, then it can't be very good. Can it?
This is a ridiculous way of thinking, and yet it is so common. If a film's title is associated with big dollars at the box office, it's just as important as great reviews or awards in the public's perception of the film being good. The association extends to actors too: How else do you explain the successful box office careers of Shia Lebouf and Sam Worthington?
If a movie made that much money, it must be good, right?
Everybody loves a winner. Who wouldn't want to watch the number one movie in the country?
Pre-sold, critic-proof event films have been around for years and in the summertime get released on a weekly basis: Fast Five, Thor, Pirates 4. But there's a newer breed of event films targeted at the younger generation (Twilight, Harry Potter and High School Musical series) that go beyond being critic-proof. There seems to be a tendency of young people who know full well that the movie they're about to see is awful yet still pay money to watch it for some insane reason. Be it peer pressure, marketing, or the need to fill some time, this generation's movie goer feel they have to see these films, and have to see it now. Heaven forbid, one of their friends updates their Facebook status before them. These "Peer Pressure Event Films" are marketed in such a way it taps into a young person's insecurity of being left out if they don't see it.
Many younger movie goers (unfortunately) perceive movies as a disposable time killer. Let's face it, mainstream movies are a mass produced, affordable art form designed to reach wide audiences. And hoards of these movie goers have turned mediocre time killers into blockbusters and uncharismatic bores into movie stars.
Did people see Avatar because they heard on the news that it made a crap load of money? Sure. But certainly not enough to make it the biggest movie of all time. And besides, Avatar is a far superior piece of vision than the films listed above. To refer to Avatar as a "time killer" would be grossly unfair, and not just because it's over three hours long.
Maybe I'm the one who's totally off the mark. So, I figured it was only fair that I revisit Pandora and watch Avatar a second time to see if it was me who missed the boat. I must make clear that the second time I watched this film was just a few weeks ago and on DVD, so no third dimension. To be honest, it wasn't as bad as I remember. I have a feeling it was because my expectations were lower this time. The first go round, I was super excited to see the film in the theatre and my disappointment was surely due to my sky high expectations.
Watching it at home on my television was a very different experience than my theatrical one. Without the distraction of 3D, I was able to tune into the story more this time. Unfortunately, without the overwhelming visuals, the clichés in the script were more apparent. There's a fine line between archetype and cliché. I understand the characters are intended to be archetypes and the story was intended to be an allegory, but I just wish there was a little more complexity in the script. The story is so straightforward and calculated, there's little room for any dramatic surprise or suspense.
I did discover some unexpected benefits watching it in 2D, however. I assume Pandora was meant to be viewed in three dimensions since the added realism is intended to immerse the viewer into this fantasy world. But seeing it in 2D turns the screen into a flat canvas for the colourful images of Cameron's palette.
What originally seemed like sitting in a gorgeous forest, now felt like looking at a Monet painting. A new experience made effective for new reasons.
Visually, my eyes drank this film up, but emotionally it left me cold. I barely cared about any character in the film, and was especially disappointed by the over the top, almost laughable villain.
Ultimately, I remain very close to my original opinion of Avatar being an overall mediocre film; visually breathtaking, but dramatically unfulfilling.
So where does this leave me and my plight? It seems I have failed to find truth in this Avatarded world. I am left with doubt and uncertainty. Forgive me, as I have failed.
Maybe I've gone about this the wrong way. Maybe the problem lies not in the popular film but in the public that made the film popular. Or perhaps the very fact that Avatar was so popular is what made it mediocre. The broader the appeal of art, the less offensive the material becomes. The less offensive, the less interesting. The less interesting, the less passionate. Without passion, we're left with soulless, corporate works of art.
We all know James Cameron is a tree-hugger and Avatar's ecological message is clearly something that he is passionate about. But the personal touches end there. Avatar is a big, glossy, impersonal adventure film, corporately constructed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. From its multinational cast, to its global themes, Avatar is a "for everyone" movie. It's practically Walmart!
It's precisely the kind of movie that deserves to be the highest grossing film in the year 2011.