The King Is Dead, Long Live the King
February 3, 2010 2 Comments
Yesterday Avatar passed Titanic as the highest-grossing film in US history. I remember being incredibly skeptical of the film as its release drew near. It was too expensive to make its money back, even if it was a hit. It was sci-fi, the Titanic girls would never go for it. It was derivative, and the aliens looked stupid.
$2 billion worldwide later, I look stupid. And it’s not done yet. With the Oscar nominations, it’ll probably get boosted to another $100 million easily.
Think about this: from 1939 to 1965, we had one box office champion — Gone with the Wind. Since 1965, when The Sound of Music knocked off Gone With the Wind, we’ve had eight: Sound of Music, The Godfather (1972), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), ET (1982), Star Wars (1997) again (thanks to the Special Edition), Titanic (1997), and now Avatar.
People like to point out that Gone With the Wind sold more tickets and, adjusted for inflation, made more money, and that’s a fair point. And a lot of Avatar‘s money is coming from the premium price for 3D tickets. But look at what a movie competes with these days: cable TV, video games, the internet, DVD. There are so many options available — and so many ways to enjoy a movie without going to the theater — that, adjusted or not, what Avatar has done (and what Titanic did before it) is really remarkable.
Still, the furor over Avatar feels nothing like what happened with Star Wars. The theme from Avatar isn’t playing on the radio non-stop. Avatar action figures aren’t flying out of the stores. People aren’t walking around in Avatar t-shirts. The jargon is starting to creep into everyday use — there are people saying “I see you” now as a form of greeting — but while Avatar is definitely a box office phenomenon, Star Wars was a cultural one, and I don’t see Avatar reaching that kind of level of awareness. At least not yet.
13 years ago, no one thought Titanic‘s records would ever be broken. Now people are saying Avatar‘s never will be. Who knows? Maybe James Cameron goes away for another ten years, actually films a movie in space, and it grosses a billion domestic and we’ll all wonder how he does it.