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‘Avatar’ at 10: What Happened to the 3D Box Office Boom?

Chris Aronson admits he was being bullish when he told his colleagues at 20th Century Fox that “Avatar” would gross $500 million at the domestic box office. This was back in 2009, before Marvel mania and Disney dominance made half-a-billion-dollar earners commonplace. Up until that point, only “Titanic” and “The Dark Knight” had surpassed that gargantuan milestone. Eleven more films have since joined the club.

“People thought we were out of our minds,” recalls Aronson, who was responsible for overseeing the film’s theatrical rollout at Fox. “We always marvel at that.”

Of course, “Avatar” went on to smash that benchmark, ending its unprecedented box office run with $760 million in North America. James Cameron’s dazzling sci-fi epic was the first film to cross $2 billion worldwide and spent a decade as the highest-grossing movie of all time ($2.74 billion) until “Avengers: Endgame” defeated its historic run this July.

For all the hype around Cameron’s piece de resistance, “Avatar” was far from a sure-fire commercial success. But Aronson and his Fox comrades, as well as exhibition executives who got to see early footage, knew the high-tech wizardry used to bring Pandora to life was otherworldly from the start. The 3D technology, utilizing motion-capture performances to illustrate the local tribe of Na’vi on the big screen, was seen as revolutionary. But it didn’t come cheap. “Avatar” cost over $200 million, making it one of the most expensive movies at the time.

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When “Avatar” debuted a decade ago on Dec. 18, 2009, it opened to a solid, but not spectacular, $77 million.

“There were snowstorms and there wasn’t a feeling that it was a huge thing,” Patrick Corcoran, chief communications officer of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, an exhibition industry trade group, remembers of its inaugural weekend. “But it kept playing at the same level week after week. I don’t think anyone realized how big it would be.”

“Avatar” had unparalleled legs and was a mainstay on movie theater marquees through August, thanks to the glowing word-of-mouth that drove repeat viewings. “The second weekend, we dropped all of $2 million. We knew we had something then,” says Aronson. It held the No. 1 spot for a record consecutive seven weeks and remained in the top 10 for over three months.

Over 80% of ticket sales for “Avatar” came from 3D and premium formats. The unique demand to see “Avatar” in the best quality possible left executives scrambling to find their own 3D hits. But there was trouble in paradise, and not just of the Quaritch variety.

“Avatar” was a passion project of Cameron’s, one that he waited years before executing to ensure technology could match his vision. Studios and filmmakers, in attempting to capitalize on that trend, converted movies that weren’t filmed on 3D cameras with shoddy results.

“People rushed into it assuming if you slap on 3D, you can make extra money. Audiences caught onto that,” Corcoran said. “I don’t think that was fully exploited, but I think it was oversold as ‘this is the way of the future.'”

The premium format quickly fell out of favor with moviegoers, who felt duped by high-profile misfires — films such as 2010’s “Clash of the Titans” and “The Last Airbender” rushed to add 3D at the last minute with little regard towards quality control.

“Certain studios took the time to make high-quality 3D films, but some films that were put into 3D were garbage. As a result, not all 3D was created equal,” says Eric Handler, a media analyst with MKM Partners. “There was a lot that people didn’t want to pay a premium for anymore.”

There’s hope from certain sectors that the release of “Avatar 2” in 2021 could reignite passion for the format. Cameron is planning three subsequent sequels in the coming years, with a fifth installment wrapping things up in 2027.

With just one movie, “Avatar” became one of Hollywood’s most valuable properties. Its influence also inspired exhibitors to speed up the deployment of digital cinema so theaters were equipped with the technology needed to play 3D. Studios wanted the change to take place because it’s far cheaper to give theater owners digital copies of films than it is to make and ship prints. But the combustion of 3D is forcing owners of smaller theaters like Bill Campbell, who runs Orpheum Theaters in Sheridan, Wyoming, to decide if it’s worth expensive equipment upgrades to keep up with technology for the sequel.

“It’s another business decision,” Campbell says. “It would need to be a trend. You’ve seen high frame rate experiments, but you haven’t seen the need and the desire to the public. I haven’t stepped up any equipment yet. That said, you have to know the next ‘Avatar’ is going to be huge. Maybe you pencil it in to do it just for that movie.”

There’s confidence in the industry that daring to push cinematic boundaries will keep ticket buyers coming back to their local movie theater. That’s partially why critics and audiences alike fell in love with “Gravity” and “Life of Pi,” films that benefited from the immersion that 3D can offer.

“3D won’t make a bad film better, but it can tremendously enhance a great film creatively,” says Michael V. Lewis, co-founder and CEO of RealD, a tech company specializing in 3D cinema. “It’s great at maximizing the emotional connection of the film.”

The second “Avatar” comes as moviegoing as a whole is being challenged by streaming services. For theater owners, Cameron’s fantastical follow-ups are emblematic of the kind of experience that can’t be replicated in the home.

“I remember a lot of young boys in fourth to seventh grade coming back over and over,” Campbell recalls of the original. “I hope we can get excitement with that age crowd again. We’re losing some of that generation to streaming, so we want to make sure they’re still familiar with the cinema.”

There’s a lot riding on the future of “Avatar.” Disney, which inherited the lucrative property after acquiring Fox’s film empire earlier in 2019, has dated its four sequels to release in theaters every other year for the next decade. With Star Wars wrapping up its core nine-chapter saga with this December’s “Rise of Skywalker,” the studio needs another mega-franchise to slot in around the holidays. It helps that even before Disney merged with Fox, it knew the property intimately, having created attractions based on “Avatar” at its Florida theme park.

“It’s not a slam dunk success, but Disney is going to put a hell of a lot of support on it,” Handler says. “They are counting on the success of Jim Cameron combined with Disney’s marketing muscle.”

There’s at least one thing exhibitors and studio executives can unanimously agree on: “Jim Cameron is no fool. He understands how to put technology in service of the story he’s trying to tell” (Corcoran). “If you look at his track record, he hasn’t failed yet. I would bet on him every time” (Aronson). “Cameron always pushes the envelope” (Campbell). “Who am I to doubt Jim Cameron? He’s only made two of the three most successful movies ever” (Handler).

Some people look ahead to “Avatar” parts two through five with some poignancy. Even for executives like Aronson, who have heaps of films under their belt, the scale of working on “Avatar” remains unmatched.

“One of the sincere regrets of my career is not being able to be part of ‘Avatar’s’ [sequels]” said Aronson, who works at Paramount post Disney-Fox merger. “That’s how strongly I feel about Jim and that experience. It was a great ride.”

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