Interactivity offers deep dive into filmmaking process

Given “Avatar’s” technological achievements, it’s no surprise 20th Century Fox is turning to James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster to break new digital ground with the film’s release on Apple’s iTunes.

Starting Dec. 20, the film will be available in HD — the first in the format for Fox on iTunes — and offer interactive extras that will enable viewers to deconstruct 17 scenes in splitscreen that reveal how the f/x for the sequences were created through various levels of the performance capture and post-production processes.

As a scene plays, the screen is broken up to simultaneously show various f/x layers, with each easily manipulated without opening separate windows. Another feature lets users move a cursor across the screen like a flashlight to reveal what part of a scene was greenscreen on set while making the movie.

The “Avatar iTunes Extras Special Edition” also includes Cameron’s original screenplay, his scriptment and a gallery of some 1,700 images.

So far, the feature-filled digital version of “Avatar” can only be played on Apple and PC desktop and laptop computers, not tablets, although the devices can be connected to a TV.

Apple is pricing the special edition at $19.99 for the HD edition and $14.99 for the SD version.

Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment collaborated closely with 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment to develop the interactive extras, offering up footage from its library and fine tuning the features.

“Digital platforms like iTunes usher in new ways to interact with and watch movies like ‘Avatar,'” said Aubrey Freeborn, senior VP of marketing and product management for worldwide VOD and electronic sell-through for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. “These new interactive features enhance the experience and encourage digital ownership.”

Fox hopes to launch similar interactive special editions next year for other titles in its library and wants to expand their offering through other e-tailers in the future.

Increasing digital sales is, naturally, something Fox and other studios are looking to grow as DVD sales continue to decline. During the first half of the year, the electronic sales of films rose 4%, earning $270 million, far less than VOD rentals, which came in at $929 million, also up 4%, according to the Digital Entertainment Group.

Just how many copies of iTunes’ special edition of “Avatar” will sell remains to be seen. While designed for “Avatar” fans, the features may appeal more to film students or filmmakers who want to learn more about the production process. But as collectible anniversary boxed sets of titles, like “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story” have sold well, Fox is turning to “Avatar” to create a similar product for the digital era.

Fox chose to hold off on selling HD films on iTunes until now due to piracy concerns — the same issue that has kept studios from offering up more HD versions of their films through other online retailers as digital downloads. But Apple convinced Fox that its copy-protection software is secure enough, which should help get other studios on board, especially with “Avatar” as the title leading the charge.

“Avatar,” the highest-grossing film at the worldwide box office, has earned nearly $2.8 billion. Film is also the top-selling Blu-ray of all time, while together with its DVD, ranks as the top homevideo release of 2010.

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