Thursday, August 20, 2009

Avatar: Perfecting the Art of Hype

Today, August 20, James Cameron released the teaser trailer for his new film Avatar, and unless you've been living under a rock for the past 5 years, you've probably heard something about this film already. If you haven't, you will soon, and this is no accident. Cameron, who has not made a feature film since Titanic (1997), has perfected the art of how to build hype around his projects before their release.

Titanic, 12 years after its release, is still the most financially successful film ever made, and considering the inflation of ticket prices since '97 this is most impressive. To put it in perspective, the most successful film worldwide since Titanic is Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), and in order to match Titanic's $1.8 billion gross it would have needed to make an additional $700 million. That's the entire amount the hugely successful film Transformers made worldwide in 2007.

James Cameron is no dummy, and he learned a lot from his Titanic experience. A lot of factors went into making Titanic the massive phenomenon it became. Everyone knew the story behind the making of Titanic before they ever saw a single frame. It was the most expensive film ever made, had one of the most complicated productions of all time, and featured two of the biggest rising stars on the planet. It was also the subject of rumor and speculation long before principal photography had completed. There had been talk in Hollywood that the film wouldn't get finished due to massive problems on set, and the fact that it took so long to produce added credibility to the rumors. The release date was pushed from July to December 1997, and by the time the film came out there was such anticipation that everyone just had to see what all the fuss was about. Now Cameron is recreating some of the same factors that helped make Titanic a success.

He's learned that the story behind the story is just as important, and he's been writing the tale behind Avatar for a long time. Cameron first envisioned Avatar 15 years ago as a sweeping Sci-Fi epic filled with adventure, romance (sound familiar), and mind blowing special effects that blend reality seamlessly with fantasy in 3-D. He realized that the technology required to fulfill his vision did not yet exist, so he waited. He made Titanic, worked on TV documentaries and did screen tests until he felt conditions were right to begin. And while it may be true that technology has come a long way in the last 15 years, the length of time between Cameron's major projects has helped feed the hype narrative. This is not to suggest that he delayed purposely just to build a backstory. Conventional wisdom would have been to complete another film quickly in order to capitalize on the success of Titanic, but he knew that waiting would only help in the long term.

Cameron is a legendary perfectionist, a larger than life figure who gets exactly what he wants, and nothing less, no matter what. For the last 5 years he's been working night and day to make Avatar exactly the way he envisioned it almost 2 decades ago. Unlike Titanic, this time Cameron has taken a page from Star Wars and hired a cast of virtual unknowns, led by Sam Worthington. Cameron was the visionary behind the Terminator franchise in the early 80s, so perhaps it's fitting Worthington just broke out as the surprise star of Terminator Salvation, overshadowing Christian Bale. Worthington shot his Avatar performance before Terminator, which is yet another indication of how long it's taken to finalize the film.

Controversy is one of hype's closest allies, and to no surprise Avatar has had some. There was a bit of a dispute between studios over the rights to the name "Avatar." M. Night Shyamalan directed an adaptation of the animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, but when they attempted to register the name "Avatar" with the MPAA they discovered Cameron had beaten them to the punch. Shyamalan's film was renamed The Last Airbender and it's due out Summer 2010.
The biggest piece of hype, however, is the film itself. Cameron is a master at making his films a can't miss event. Tomorrow, August 21, is officially "Avatar Day." The trailer released today on will be released in theaters around the world, along with special limited screenings of a 15 minute preview, and the unveiling of the video game and toys to coincide with the film. If all goes according to plan, by the time December 18 rolls around just about everyone will feel compelled to see the film. Today the public got their first glimpse of the rumored mind-blowing effects, but you can bet that Cameron is keeping the most amazing footage under tight wraps so that the audience leaves the theater feeling like they've just witnessed something they've never seen before. The key to Titanic's success was word of mouth recommendations and repeat viewers after the first wave of people came away captivated. You can bet Cameron is banking on the same thing happening for Avatar.


  1. I think it's all a hype. Just yet another movie I cannot understand what the fuss is over it

  2. Intersting perspective, I enjoyed your piece, even though according to you I have been living under a rock. Such is life.