'Avatar' eyeing big boxoffice bow

VIDEO: $300 million film starts long march toward profitability

Fox releases James Cameron's first dramatic feature in 12 years this weekend, and there's almost as much buzz about its costs as the film's groundbreaking motion-capture animation.

The studio first claimed that its costs on "Avatar" totaled $237 million but more recently refused to confirm any number. Most industryites believe the pic cost a minimum of $300 million to produce.

Even at the lower studio figure, that's a lot of green stuff to expect to make back from a mostly animated pic populated by blue aliens.

Cameron appears unfazed by such pressures.

"I don't think it means jack shit," Cameron said. "To be perfectly honest, I think the studio has generated the myth about its costs to help in the selling of the movie. I have seen this happen with 'Terminator' and 'True Lies' and 'Titanic,' and it helps the film become a must-see film. By the way, doesn't that mean it's a bargain to see such an expensive film for the same amount it costs to see any other film? It's the deal of the century!"

So just how much can "Avatar" ring up during its all-important opening weekend? Broad consensus has the sci-fi actioner -- toplined by Sam Worthington ("Terminator Salvation") and Sigourney Weaver -- fetching $80 million or more through Sunday, though Fox has been floating much lower figures to tamp down expectations.

Toting a running time of 2 hours and 36 minutes, "Avatar" starts its long march toward profitability with 12:01 a.m. Friday performances set for more than 2,000 mostly 3D locations. For the rest of the weekend, "Avatar" will play in some 3,400 theaters boasting almost 3,000 3D screens and roughly an equal number of 2D auditoriums.

"Avatar" debuts simultaneously this week in most foreign markets, with more than 5,000 3D screens in place internationally for the release.

"That's more than double what we had for 'Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs' this summer," Fox international distribution co-president Tomas Jegeus said. "So that's pretty amazing."

The 3D screen count might have been even higher had the global credit crunch not stalled for several months the exhibition industry's ongoing conversion to digital projection systems. But execs applauded exhibs' efforts to add 3D capability in many of the existing digital systems.

"We're thrilled," said Jon Landau, Cameron's partner in Lightstorm Entertainment and, like the filmmaker, a producer on "Avatar. "There are more screens available to us on a worldwide basis than we ever imagined would be possible."

Fox domestic distribution president Bruce Snyder was similarly pleased.

"Considering the marketplace and what happened with the economy, our 3D screen count is really quite good," Snyder said.

Key to Cameron's vision for the release, the 3D venues will produce outsized screen grosses because of premium ticket charges. The movie's overall domestic theater count is less important.

Tentpole releases these days often play in more than 4,000 theaters. With "Avatar," execs were happy to leave smaller-town screens for Fox's second big holiday release, "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel," set to unspool Dec. 23.

Indeed, most distribution execs believe anything higher than 3,000 playdates is relatively insignificant to the opening performance of films other than family pics.

"Avatar" is likely to draw best among male moviegoers, but it will bear watching how it skews in the age demo. Heading into the weekend, prerelease tracking surveys indicate a good chance the film will draw well among both younger and older males.

As for the women, Sony is targeting older females in a counter-programming play with the romantic comedy "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" Starring Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker, "Morgans" was co-produced by Castle Rock and has more than 2,700 locations set for a weekend likely to produce $10 million or so through Sunday.

Now, back to the question of "Avatar" costs.

Helpfully, Cameron has agreed to defer a back-end payout on "Avatar" until certain boxoffice thresholds are reached. That makes its profit profile a bit easier to dissect.

The broad rule of thumb on profitability is that total domestic boxoffice must equal production costs to reach break-even on a pic, with global marketing expenses -- totaling $150 million on "Avatar" -- covered by ancillary income such as home entertainment, TV revenue and merchandising. As an action pic, "Avatar" could overachieve internationally, and merchandising should prove unusually bountiful with partners including McDonald's and mass merchants.

So even if the studio's official budget estimate is, ahem, optimistic, prospects for pic profitability lie squarely in category of tough-but-doable.

Amy Miles, CEO of No. 1 U.S. exhibitor Regal Entertainment, recently predicted "Avatar" would make about $250 million in the U.S. and Canada. All things considered, that also could be the threshold at which execs at Fox and Lightstorm exchange lusty high fives.

Meantime, drawing four Golden Globe noms Tuesday helped brighten prerelease publicity for the pic, and as the opening approaches all signs are propitious. If early, rapturous reviews are matched by similar word-of-mouth among early patrons, a leggy holiday run would seem to be in the offing.

Certainly the movie marketplace has been ebullient.

The industry has outpaced year-earlier weekend comparisons for the past three frames. This session will be compared with a light $88.5 million weekend featuring the $18.3 million bow of Warner Bros.' "Yes Man."

Annual boxoffice soon should cross the $10 billion mark for the first time in history, with industry receipts up 6.2% over the same portion of last year through last weekend. A strong finish to the holiday season should help Hollywood best its year-ago tickets sales as well.

Who said moviemaking is a risky business?