Star Wars. Lord of the Rings. Terminator. Harry Potter. Indiana Jones. These films represent the highest in pop culture phenomenon’s to grip the world of film. Indeed, I know numerous people that haven’t even seen Indiana Jones, but are very well acquainted with every single one of it’s iconic scenes.
They’re also all major blockbuster movies that have made millions and billions at the box office.
Usually you can expect to associate the two. That is, box office success with a healthy life in pop culture. This isn’t the case for Avatar, the multi-billion dollar blockbuster whose flame is all but extinguished in the eyes of pop culture.
Scott Mendelson digs within to find a reason as to why this is the case. In doing so, he illuminates the reasons why he believes that Avatar might be the ideal blockbuster without sparing his love of James Cameron.
I myself can’t claim to be a fan of Avatar, but I can say that after reading Mendelson’s piece, I can’t help but wonder: “what happened?”
Five Years Ago, ‘Avatar' Grossed $2.7 Billion But Left No Pop Culture Footprint
But opening weekends are about marketing and pre-release interest, the rest of the theatrical run is generally about the movie. Audiences having been knocked out by what they saw, in terms of the 3D, in terms of the visually glorious Pandora , and yes in terms of the primal “indigenous people beat back murderous invaders with the help of a turncoat member of the enemy” story that explicitly referenced a decade of post-9/11 imperialistic warfare. I talk a lot about not giving away the game in the marketing campaign can boost positive word-of-mouth since it will make the film’s real joys appear to be more of a discovery for moviegoers, and Avatar fit the bill. Like Jurassic Park in 1993, no one quite got how visually stunning Avatar was going to look, and quite a few of them came back for seconds. Well, this is where those who grew up in the late 90’s following this stuff got a jolt of déjà vu.
I distinctly remember the excitement in the air as the opening weekend of Titanic gave way to obscenely positive word of mouth leading into the Christmas season, and I honestly felt the same kind of heat this time around. I remember, as Avatar went from a $24 million Sunday to $16m single-day grosses for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, thinking out loud “This can’t be happening again, can it? He can’t have done this twice in a row, right?” But history indeed repeated itself as James Cameron’s sci-fi 3D opus dropped about 1.5% on its second weekend to earn $75.6m over the Christmas weekend. Not to be outdone, Sherlock Holmes earned $62m that weekend while Fox’s “safety net” Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel debuted with $47m over what is still the single-biggest box office weekend on record. Avatar’s second weekend gross of $75.1 million was eventually supplanted by The Avengers ($106m off a $207m weekend debut), but Avatar still holds the record for the biggest gross for weekends 3 ($69m), 4 ($50m), 5 ($42m), 6 ($34m), and 7 ($31m). Guess what movie still holds the record for weekends 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12.
Avatar crossed $1 billion by the end of its third weekend and topped Titanic‘s $1.8b worldwide cume, or what I used to call the ’Joe DiMaggio 56-game hitting streak’ of box office records, in just 38 days. It went on to earn $760m domestic (compared to Titanic’s $600m haul in 1997/1998, not counting the 2012 3D reissue) and a stunning $2.7b worldwide, topping the (at the time) $1.8b worldwide cume of Titanic by 50%. Even five years later, there are only 22 films that have grossed even half of Avatar’s final $760m domestic cume. Even five years later, only Titanic and The Avengers have earned half of Avatar’s $2.7b gross while just 30 films have earned a third of that worldwide. Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time by such a margin that we may not see anything approach its global cume for a very long time, if ever. Yet for all intents and purposes, the film is all-but-forgotten.
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(cover photo credit: snap from IMDb)