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Avatar is Not a "Game Changer"

Aired on December 27, 2009 (Epsiode 270)

I wanted to speak a bit more about Avatar. In my review of the film, I did what I attempt to do on all films: to separate my evaluation of it from the hype, from the advertising, and from other critical responses. But now, separate from the review of the film I’d like to comment directly on the marketing of Avatar.

The film has been a long time coming and much has been made in the press about the new technology that was developed for motion capture. The marketing strategy by the studio capitalized on this, calling Avatar a “game changer” and the television spots proclaimed that “movies will never be the same.”

Let me tell you now: Avatar’s impact on film will be nominal at best. To be a game changer would mean that the film would actually alter the way we experience or think about watching movies. That would put it on par with the introduction of sound in The Jazz Singer, the use of color and black and white film in The Wizard of Oz, the cinematography and editing style of Easy Rider, the introduction of motion control in the original Star Wars, or the use of computer generated images in Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. Avatar just doesn’t have anything that groundbreaking on the screen. The 3-D gimmick, if it is here to say this time, was already well established by the time Avatar arrived and I defy anyone to find visuals in this film that don’t have an equivalent in The Lord of the Rings, Jurassic Park, or the Star Wars films.

I think the “game changer” marketing strategy was a terrible idea to sell the film for two reasons. First, it instantly begins raising expectations and it creates a preconception in the audience of what the film is or should be. If audiences go into the theater expecting to have their world changed they are naturally going to be disappointed when that does not happen, even if it was objectively a good film. If audiences go into the picture not sure what to expect, the film has the element of surprise and does not have to compete with the perfect movie that already exists in the audience’s head.

Second, this kind of marketing strategy practically invites critics and sci-fi fans to tear the film down if it fails to satisfy their expectations. Both the mainstream media and online blogosphere go through predictable patterns of building up films to the point of hysteria and then taking cruel pleasure in ripping them to shreds. The unfortunate result can be a good film that ends up with a bad reputation.

I think this ultimately comes down to the ludicrous measure of box office success for Hollywood pictures, where every movie is expected to prove itself by the Sunday after its release. The focus is on getting as many viewers into the theater in that opening weekend with the goal of breaking attendance records is unrealistic and if the film doesn’t do that it is perceived as some kind of failure. That puts pressure on the marketing department of the studio to throw everything they can into promoting a big budget films. It also means that word of mouth and repeat business are tossed out as ways of building interest in a film. And this is a dangerous trend because what it ultimately leads to is a situation in which it doesn’t matter if the films are good or not because they will be out of the theater by the end of the month anyway. And what is ironic about this is that the most successful films of the decade, The Dark Knight and The Lord of the Rings, made their fortunes based on being good films that drew viewers to the theater multiple times.

To get back to Avatar, it is safe to say the film will be financially successful. Ultimately all movies, no matter how expensive or incorrectly marketed, eventually make their money back. And of course, just because a movie makes a lot of money does not mean it is any good. After all, the highest grossing film of 2009 is also one of the worst: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

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