Sales seen as sign of the homevid's strength

photos/_storypics/avatar_computer.jpg” vspace=”3″ hspace=”3″ align=”center”>

While “Avatar” has already planted roots at the box office as the highest-grossing pic of all time, all eyes are now on how James Cameron’s sci-fi epic will perform when it bows on homevideo on Earth Day.

Hollywood is especially interested in “Avatar’s” DVD and Blu-ray sales, considering how hard the homevideo business has been hit over the past several years.

In fact, many in the biz believe that if “Avatar,” which earned $2.7 billion at the B.O., can’t help prop up sales, nothing will.

But what kind of benchmark will it need to reach?

This year, “Twilight: New Moon” impressed the industry when the second installment of Summit’s franchise was released in March. The DVD sold 4 million units in its first three days, primarily because the studio and retail partners, like Best Buy, treated the DVD’s bow as an event for fans, releasing it on a weekend, rather than a Tuesday when homevideo releases typically hit store shelves. Fox is similarly treating Thursday’s rollout of the “Avatar” DVD as a major event, with the studio hosting a series of activities to promote the film’s homevideo launch.

For example, it’s using the film’s environmental themes to tie into the 40th anniversary of Earth Day with a tree-planting on the Fox lot Thursday, followed by the studio planting 1 million trees in 15 countries by the end of the year with the Earth Day Network.

On Saturday, Cameron will speak at the U.N.’s annual forum on indigenous issues. And on Sunday, the helmer will speak at a climate rally in Washington, D.C. Electronics maker Panasonic is the film’s primary promotional partner.

Despite all that, “the greatest marketing for the movie is the movie itself,” Mike Dunn, president, worldwide, of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment told Daily Variety .

While “New Moon’s” sales are significant, others are pointing to the first “Transformers” as the pic to beat. Paramount sold 7 million units of the film’s DVD, earning $140 million, in the first week in 2007, and anything less than that will be considered a disappointment for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, some say.

But Fox worked with Cameron to lock down the right release date for the DVD — even while the film is still playing in some 500 locations.

While they found that “Avatar” box office was dropping only about 8% per week, “we sort of got sober” over the fact that “Alice in Wonderland” and “How to Train Your Dragon” would take up 3D screens and cause a greater drop, Cameron told Daily Variety .

Although Cameron admits he “was actually kind of skeptical” of the plan to release “Avatar” on homevid so early, because it’s still in some theaters, he was still drawn to the notion of releasing it on Earth Day — not only because of the film’s environmental themes but also because it sends the pic out several weeks ahead of tentpoles like “Iron Man 2″ that will kick off the summer and distract consumers.

This week’s DVD will be a bare bones release that doesn’t include traditional features like making-of-documentaries or commentary tracks — not even trailers.

A more expensive feature-filled DVD and Blu-ray, with additional sequences, is planned for release as early as November, in time for the holidays. A 3D version is also in the works.

And Fox is also planning to re-release “Avatar” in theaters in August with six minutes of footage added to the pic.

All the various versions — in theaters and on DVD and Blu-ray — are being eyed as a way to experiment with distribution platforms, Cameron said. Each release is expected to provide a new way to make money for Fox and friends, given the popularity of the pic.

The film hits store shelves in France, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands today. The last major theatrical territory is Italy on May 6.

Pricing is also competitive. As of Tuesday, Amazon was selling the Blu-ray/DVD combo of “Avatar” for $20, while the regular DVD was $16.

Best Buy also had the Blu-ray for $23 and DVD for $16, while Apple’s iTunes was selling pre-orders of the pic for download for $15.

Presales for “Avatar,” particularly on Blu-ray, are at a “very, very high level,” Cameron said. In fact, more than 60% of the pre-orders for “Avatar” have been for the pricier Blu-ray title, Cameron has told the media — far higher than the usual 20% for DVD titles.

“The wider public has made the decision that they want the premium experience,” Cameron said.

And that has retailers and the studios excited about the potential of the pic.

Industryites will be especially looking closely at how the 2D version of “Avatar” sells on DVD. Sales will dictate whether consumers will wait for the 3D version to bow around November or later as they start buying 3D TVs.

But that hasn’t affected previous 3D releases.

So far, it’s been mixed: Disney and Pixar’s “Up” was the third best-selling DVD last year, earning $145 million for the studio. But DreamWorks Animation’s “Monsters vs. Aliens” has moved just 5.2 million units, worth $83 million.

Blu-ray sales are already up 74% for the year, compared with the first three months in 2009, according to the Digital Entertainment Group. Sales of DVDs and Blu-rays fell 13% in 2009, as more consumers opted to rent movies. Overall revenue from sales and rentals across all categories fell 5%.

“The sky’s the limit with this film,” Dunn said. “The economy is starting to stabilize. The DVD and Blu-ray business is stabilizing. We’re hoping ‘Avatar’ will help turn the corner. It’s got the momentum behind it to reignite the industry.”

(Ted Johnson contributed to this report.)

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more