'Avatar' running time set at 2.5 hours

5:36 PM PST 11/20/2009 by Alex Ben Block, AP

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How long is it?

That is the question about James Cameron's "Avatar," the science-fiction epic opening Dec. 18 that has been hotly debated for months, with rampant speculation that it would run over three hours.

In fact, it will be well under that, at least in part to meet limits imposed by Imax technology.

The actual running time will be 150 minutes, which is two and a half hours, according to Bruce Snyder, president of domestic distribution for 20th Century Fox, which is handling the release of the movie. He said that may rise to 156 minutes when all of the credits are added on, but that would be the maximum running time.

That will allow for two showings each evening at theaters, most likely at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. That would also mean about three daytime showings, beginning at 10 a.m., for a total of five shows a day in each auditorium. Typically a theater operator needs half an hour between shows with the lights up to move people out and get the auditorium cleaned, and then another 20 minutes with the lights down for trailers, in-theater advertising and other promotions and announcements.

"Avatar" will start with midnight screenings and play around the clock at first, but that is expected to be the case only for the first few days, after which it will play a normal pattern of runs.

It is unclear exactly how many theaters "Avatar" will open in, but Snyder estimates it will play in 3D in about 2,500 locations on about 3,500 screens. It will also be available in about 1,500 other locations in 2D, where it could play multiple screens in each theater complex. That would indicate an opening on a minimum of 5,500 screens and possibly significantly more, and that's just in the U.S. It will also open in theaters in countries around the world.

There have been stories circulated that "Avatar" would run over three hours, which is understandable because Cameron movies have run long in the past. His last narrative feature was "Titanic" in 1997, which ran 194 minutes, or three hours and 14 minutes.

Cameron has said that one of the constraints on his decision about running time was the Imax runs. "Avatar" will open day-and-date in 3D in about 180 domestic Imax theaters (which is included in the 2,500 locations) and several dozen more internationally. In those theaters that are not yet converted to digital projection, they are limited to two of the giant platters that hold the film, which caps the length of a movie using the system at 170 minutes, which thus became the maximum length that Cameron was willing to let "Avatar" run. In fact, he came in well under that with his final edit.

Imax has not scheduled another movie into its circuit until the first week of March, in anticipation of a historically long run for "Avatar." Most movies play about three weeks in Imax. If it is as successful as anticipated, "Avatar" is expected to play for about ten weeks. That would break the record for an Imax run set last year by "Dark Knight," which ran for 10 weeks.

Domestic movie theaters are expected to commit to an eight-week initial run for "Avatar," but ultimately that will depend on its performance. If it is disappointing, that could be cut short, and if it becomes as popular as "Titanic" was in its time, it could play even longer. Snyder would not comment on the terms being asked, but Fox is understood to be seeking "premium" terms from exhibitors for what is one of the most highly anticipated movies in years.

Fox has confirmed that the movie cost at least $230 million to make, but there have been reports it is much more than that. Fox is also expected to spend as much as $100 million to advertise, market and promote "Avatar" around the world, and through partnerships with Panasonic (which is using it to launch its new line of 3D TV sets) and licensees like Mattell (toys) and Ubisoft video games, which will pour on millions more in ancillary marketing.
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