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Why Avatar's Headed For Blockbuster Mediocrity

It's not often that a movie generates this much buzz about cash. Apart from that one summer movie that pulls focus for a couple of days as it shatters box office records, money talk is usually relegated to discussion of the weekend box office winner. But for weeks now people have been predicting and debating Avatar's financial situation and despite the movie finally opening and its first weekend take revealed, the conversation isn't slowing down.

It’s clear from the first weekend totals that James Cameron has nothing to worry about in the finance department. Profitability is no longer up in the air. Even if the movie cost over $400 million to make (which, given Cameron’s ability to outspend all other directors in Hollywood, might not be impossible), he can expect Avatar to turn a decent profit. Now that we know how much money it banked its first weekend, the question is how it will hold up in the long run? Will it be just another blockbuster, or will it have the legs to catch up other truly major players like Dark Knight, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

It's a question that I don't think anyone would even be asking except for the fantastic anomaly that was James Cameron's last major movie, Titanic. On its opening weekend twelve years ago, Titanic earned a weak-kneed $28 million. Despite that slow start, it went on an unbelievable box office binge that created records still untouched today.

There are some, like CB editor Katey Rich who think Avatar could be on the same cash-track and that it's weekend opening doesn't matter (I recommend you read her thoughts here before continuing). But unlike Cameron's last film, it's pretty clear to me that Avatar isn't a likely candidate for box office legend status. Here's why:

Your grandmother doesn’t care about the fate of imaginary blue aliens. Titanic's slow burn success during the 1997 Christmas season can be attributed in part to enthusiastic word of mouth spread over holiday dinner tables. But while aunts, uncles and grandparents might be swayed by the promise of a moving story set in the midst of a revolutionary portrayal of an infamous historical event, it's unlikely they'll get as excited about the geeky joys of beautiful special effects and state-of-the-art 3D.

Geeks are bad, but teenage girls are worse. When Titanic hit the big screen it could take up to a year for a movie to get to home video. Teeny boppers obsessed with Leonardo DiCaprio had no choice but to commit repeat visits to the movie theater to get their fix. Today, many people may see the movie in theaters once to see what all the fuss is about, but the only folks who will be heading back for multiple viewings are the ones gawking at the 3D. I don't care how stunning Pandora may be, the geeks needing that fix are few, far between, and have nothing on Leo's fan club.

Who needs movie theater popcorn when you can push a pause button. In the 1990s, before DVD became a household acronym and large flat-screen televisions became a staple in many American homes, it wasn't unusual for the really good movies to see a long life at the box office. Heck, even the mediocre ones did OK. Remember Wayne's World? It was number one for five weekends straight! Back then you passed your Saturday night at the movie theater watching your favorite movie, even if it was for the second or third time. These days Avatar will have to compete against the Saturday night option that involves the far more attractive visit to the Red Box to pick up your favorite from a couple of months back. This time, if you have to go pee half-way through, you don't have to worry about missing anything exciting.

America's attention span just doesn't last that long. The slow burn doesn't really exist anymore. Avatar may stay at number one for one more weekend (even against the hugely anticipated Sherlock Holmes and chipmunks sequel), but given America's tendency to hit and run it will be lucky to stay in the top ten through February. That's not to say the movie won't make bank. It will probably even be one of the biggest of the year. But like almost all movies these days, the bigger the opening, the quicker the fall. Consider New Moon which had a tremendous $142 million opening weekend fueled by all kinds of excitement. In just three weeks it had dropped to making less than $10 million on a weekend. Don't expect much better treatment for Cameron's blue aliens.

James Cameron’s best love stories are tragedies, not fantasies. OK, so this reason isn’t all that logical, but I love patterns and this one is hard to ignore. All of Cameron’s movies have a close tie-in to love. Terminator had Sarah Connor falling for Kyle Reece. Terminator 2 was all about a boy and his robot. The Abyss showed how love can exist even between the world’s most stubborn man and the world’s biggest cast-iron bitch. But it wasn’t until Cameron took his love story out of the sci-fi/action realm and dropped it into the real world that audiences connected in ways that broke box office records. His new love story, which boldly crosses inter-species lines, isn’t likely to repeat the magic of Kate and Leo.