'Last Airbender' was first 'Avatar'

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Scott Aversano
 
When a movie is based on a hit TV series, it typically uses the series' name as its title. In the case of Paramount and Nickelodeon Movies' "The Last Airbender," written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan and opening July 1, that was the plan.

Then fate stepped in and made it impossible.

The problem was that the Nickelodeon series that debuted in 2005 was called "Avatar: The Last Airbender."

"Some things are simply accidents of timing, and that was one," said Scott Aversano, who executive produced the movie with Kathleen Kennedy and series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.

"Certainly when the show debuted, no one anywhere had heard of the word avatar in connection with anything other than the Nickelodeon show."

But then along came James Cameron with an entirely different movie called "Avatar" that opened last December and wound up grossing $2.8 billion worldwide.

Clearly, the "Airbender" team, including producers Sam Mercer and Frank Marshall, knew it would be a mistake to try to release two movies within a tight window that both featured the title "Avatar." So, in effect, the first "Avatar" became the "Last Airbender."

"Trying to explain the differences between Jim Cameron's version of what an avatar is, which is very different than the version of what the avatar is in our movie, posed real problems."

How does Aversano feel about the film's shortened title?

"I think we have a title that's actually emblematic of what the film is," he said. "I don't think it's in any way a cheapening or a compromise."

The project is one that Aversano was attracted to from the start. He saw the show while vacationing and then approached Nickelodeon about turning it into a feature. But the series was so new they weren't ready to start thinking about a big-screen version.

But then fate did some more intervening -- this time in a helpful way.

"About six months later, I was named the head of the Nickelodeon MTV brand movie division at Paramount," Aversano told me.

"Suddenly, I was the one who was deciding whether it would make a good movie. It was a much easier conversation with myself."

Aversano knew his way around the movie development track. He'd spent seven years working with producer Scott Rudin before becoming president of MTV Films and Nickelodeon Movies. While with Rudin, where he became production president, Aversano produced or executive produced such films as "Failure to Launch," "Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events" and "Changing Lanes."

He recognized that the series' creators had established the "core idea of their central character, the Avatar, a figure who had a fully elaborated mythology that had some religious components, some philosophical components and some Kung Fu martial arts components to it."

It helped that Aversano had the support of Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO Brad Grey, who "thought this was an ideal way to bring the Nickelodeon movie brand to the forefront of his media strategy for Paramount, and this felt like a great property with which to do it."

The next step was finding the right filmmaker.

"We had a conversation with Night Shyamalan, who was himself a fan of the show through his daughters. He tells a story about searching for avatar costumes for his daughters for Halloween. This is the first time he's ever elected to write and direct something he didn't create whole cloth."

Getting the film made also meant finding the right producers.

"We were going to need someone who was going to be able to deliver the highest possible caliber film and who had a relationship with Night," he said. "Because Kathy Kennedy and Frank Marshall had done 'Signs' and 'The Sixth Sense' with Night, they seemed like a natural fit."

Moreover, Kennedy and Marshall had worked recently with Paramount on the latest "Indiana Jones" episode, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

Although "Airbender's" roots are in a Nick series, Aversano noted, the channel's audience isn't really as young as people think, and the movie is targeted to a broader family audience.

"Before 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' everybody assumed a Disney movie meant it was playing to children under the age of 10. I think the youth audience has shifted and it's less about children and more about family viewing."

With that in mind, he added, "There's content in the movie that's meant to be emotional and expansive and heroic and I don't think childish. The movie will definitely deliver to a wider audience than what I think the expectation is."

Recalling his Nick days, Aversano observed, "We used to joke about 'drop off' movies where the parent shows up at the movie theater, drops their children off and waits outside so they don't have to watch the movie."

Such films could be profitable then. Today, it's a different story.

"The objective is to deliver a satisfying cinematic experience for the entire family audience," Aversano said.

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com
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