Fox clears the way for sci-fi pic

James Cameron and 20th Century Fox are moving forward with the long-planned $200 million production of his 3-D sci-fi tentpole “Avatar” and are aiming for a summer 2009 release.

“Avatar” pits a band of humans in a battle against a distant planet’s indigenous population.

Cameron’s pic, officially announced Monday, will hit screens 12 years after the helmer’s last feature — “Titanic,” which holds the all-time box office record with $1.8 billion in worldwide ticket sales — was released in 1997.

The helmer also had been developing “Battle Angel,” about a 26th century female cyborg, but said Monday his efforts have been focused on “Avatar” since 2005. “I’ve been working on this picture exclusively for the last year and a half,” he said.

Cameron’s “Avatar” will employ CG techniques with which the director has been experimenting over the last several years, including on his underwater 3-D docus “Ghosts of the Abyss” and “Aliens of the Deep.” The aim of the techniques is to seamlessly blend CGI and live-action footage and characters.

Techniques Cameron has developed via his Lightstorm Entertainment banner include motion-capture CG that can record an actor’s facial expressions and a virtual camera system that allows him to see in real time the way his actor-based CG characters interact with their virtual worlds.

Cameron conceived the story for “Avatar” 11 years ago, but waited for the technology to catch up before fully immersing himself in the pic. “I’ve wanted to do it since then, but sort of shoved it in the back of a drawer,” he told Daily Variety. Despite Cameron’s “picking away” at the film for the last year and a half, Fox greenlit the film only this week.

Live-action production is slated to begin in April in Los Angeles, with Peter Jackson’s New Zealand effects shop Weta doing the major effects work.

Cameron decided to team with Weta after meeting with Jackson and his writing and producing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens in New Zealand. “They sat with me and discussed the script for the better part of a day, giving me their ideas and input,” Cameron said. “That whole group down there seems to be a culture that reflects Peter’s passion for fantasy filmmaking. It reminds me of how ILM was 25 years ago.”

Principal photography will be in 3-D; Cameron hopes the digital cinema equipment needed to show 3-D pics in regular theaters will be pervasive enough by then to allow for a wide 3-D release. He said by summer 2009, there will be between 1,000 and 2,000 3-D screens in the U.S.

“I feel that we’re over the hump of the battle domestically,” Cameron said. “The international, which typically accounts for as much as two-thirds of revenue on a picture like ‘Avatar,’ is what’s lagging behind.”

Cameron said it would take “major filmmakers announcing major projects” for the international exhibition community to play catch-up and realize that “if they want to compete, they’ll have to have the same showmanship as in the States.”

He added the 3-D experience was a way for Hollywood to keep drawing auds to theaters and away from the proliferation of digital platforms, adding 3-D “maintains that sense of showmanship and gives people something special. It’s something that people can’t have at home, can’t watch on their laptop.”

As he did on “Titanic,” Cameron sought to cast largely unknown actors for his leads. Young Aussie actor Sam Worthington will play an ex-Marine who ends up leading the planet’s indigenous species in battle against the human colonizers. In the lead female role, Zoe Saldana (“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”) will play a local woman with whom Worthington’s character falls in love.

Cameron is designing the creatures who make up the “humanoid indigenous alien species” that inhabit the planet. They are 10 feet tall and blue, with nocturnal vision, but resemble humans.

A movement coach from Cirque du Soleil is working with the actors, and a linguistics professor from USC is coaching them on the alien language, as well as alien-accented English.

With Fox eyeing “Avatar” as a potential franchise, both Worthington and Saldana have signed on for future installments.

Cameron said he’s sketched out stories for possible second and third installments, but added, “It’s not a planned trilogy. This one falls into the category of trilogy of opportunity: If it makes a lot of money, it’ll be a trilogy. If it doesn’t make any money, we’ll forget all about it.”

“Every year, our business makes hundreds of films, most of which come and go,” said Fox co-chairs Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos. “Jim’s movies raise the bar, both in storytelling and use of technology. ‘Avatar’ will do so again. It will take two more years, but in the summer of 2009, ‘Avatar’ will be a seismic change in the moviegoing experience.”

Producing are Cameron and his Lightstorm partner, Jon Landau.

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