How does an astronomically expensive yet astonishingly successful science-fiction blockbuster by a world-famous director dominate popular culture for months on end, only to disappear without a trace from the public’s minds? That is the strange, half-enviable, half-unenviable fate of James Cameron’s Avatar. After its record-breaking box office run in late 2009 and early 2010, it did not exactly fall from grace so much as evaporate from grace. Fans don’t dress up as blue-skinned Navi at Avatar conventions, at least not routinely, and Sam Worthington action figures weren’t exactly flying off the shelves at Christmas. Why not?
Forbes’ Scott Mendelson has some thoughts on the subject, and he shares them in an intriguing, sympathetic think piece that takes both art and commerce into consideration. Right now, all eyes are on The Force Awakens, but even that juggernaut has a long way to go before it can compete with Avatar‘s astronomical worldwide cume. Cameron’s film is still in the lead by a wide margin, and Mendelson points out how it differs from most of the movies on the highest-grossing list: Derivative as its plot may be, it’s not based on anything.
Hollywood, Mendelson argues, learned all the wrong lessons from Avatar‘s success. Instead of seeing that original (or original-ish) films can indeed make money, studios instead latched onto the fact that audiences would pay more for a 3D movie than they would for a 2D movie. And thus began a glut of tentpole films that misused and abused the 3D gimmick, leading to “a pretty swift case of blockbuster backlash.” Compounding the problem, Cameron is a notorious slowpoke who did not provide the public with new Avatar films or shows in a timely manner to keep the property fresh in the public’s minds, so the characters and mythology he created were soon forgotten. What is remarkable about the Forbes article, however, is that it is optimistic and appreciative. Even now, Scott Mendelson remains bullish on James Cameron and Avatar. The writer even admits he’s eager to see the long-in-the-making sequels the director has promised. “I might be the only one who still cares,” Mendelson says.
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