'Avatar' site crashes as fans seek tickets

16-minute sneak preview will be in theaters Friday

The official "Avatar" Web site crashed for several hours on Monday as moviegoers rushed to secure free seats to see the 16 minutes of 3D preview footage that will be shown at 104 Imax theaters around the country on Friday evening.

Ticket ordering was scheduled to begin online at noon PDT, but at about 11:55 a.m., the site started experiencing difficulties. About 17,000 of the 68,000 available tickets were distributed before the heavy traffic forced the site down for several hours.

"Due to the overwhelming response for tickets to the 'Avatar' event on 8/21, our servers have crashed. We will update you as soon as possible," ticket seekers were advised by "Avatar's" Twitter site.

By late afternoon, avatarmovie.com was again up and running, taking five orders every second. Locations in New York and Los Angeles sold out almost immediately, and most tickets were expected to be snapped up by the end of the day.

Given that "Avatar," James Cameron's first narrative feature since 1997's "Titanic," promises a display of cutting-edge technology, the site snafu was something of an embarrassment.

At the same time, it had to be good news for Fox, which is facing the challenge of creating awareness for a movie that isn't based on a pre-existing brand, book or film. The sci-fi adventure -- with a budget the studio has put at $237 million -- opens in the U.S. on Dec. 18 and worldwide that same week.

While Fox and Cameron have been slowly unveiling footage from the film -- first at the CineExpo convention in Amsterdam in June and then at last month's Comic-Con -- Friday will be the first chance for many moviegoers to see for themselves scenes in which Australian actor Sam Worthington, playing a paralyzed Marine who travels to the planet of Pandora, finds new life as an avatar -- a blue-skinned, 10-foot tall, half-human, half-alien hybrid.

"I think to say that there is already a lot of interest in the movie is a pretty good understatement. Obviously, it blew out all the servers," said Greg Foster, Imax's chairman and president of filmed entertainment. "It's a pretty big statement about the curiosity and interest in the whole thing."

The participating Imax theaters, in between regularly scheduled screenings of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," will offer two screenings Friday of the "Avatar" footage, which will include a 30-second introduction by Cameron in which he sets up the clips. Foster said there are no plans to offer more screenings.

Fox is counting on the cachet of Cameron and its advertising and promotion to drive licensing and merchandising beginning more than two months before the movie's release.
Mattel begins shipping 28 toys to stories in early October and expects them to be on store shelves at Wal-Mart, Target and other retailers by early November.

"We're going to be pulling all the levers to make sure these are marketed properly," Mattel spokesman Chris Volk said.

"We were aware the toys would be out six weeks before the movie opens, but luckily we have Jim Cameron's name, which speaks for itself and has its own following," Fox vp licensing Virginia King added.

Lora Cohn, another vp licensing at the studio, said: "The code name for this project was 8-80, which we even use on some T-shirts, which meant that it will appeal to everyone from eight to 80."

The toys will be priced from $8.99 for a simple action figure to $26.99 for the most deluxe version.

Mattel is also counting on the action figures, creatures and vehicles from the movie to attract collectors and fans. Each figure will come with a 3D Web tag called an I-tag. When the buyer gets the toy home, they put the tag in front of a Web camera and it will reveal special content about that item such as bio background or animated models.

There will also be video games released beginning in late November for three different systems and offering two content variations, said Tim Cummings, senior PR manager for Ubisoft, the French company that developed the games in Montreal. The games for Xbox 360 and PlayStation allow the user to take the role of the hero, while a game for the Nintendo Wii allows the user to take the side of the hero or the villains in the movie. All of the games will be 3D capable but also play in a 2D version.

Ubisoft will premiere its first commercial trailer for the video games on Friday alongside the Imax showings. That day, the same trailer will be shown at the huge Gamescon trade show in Cologne, Germany.

The Xbox and PS3 versions will retail for $59.99; the Wii game will retail for $49.99.

In addition to toys and games, Fox has licenses for clothing lines for men (through Jem) and women (through Awake) that will be available at mass retailers and boutiques on Nov. 24.

Both Cohn and King said they are not concerned that toys, games and clothes will be out weeks before the movie. They said Mattel has been careful in how many units are being shipped, and they expect the toys could be sold out based on reaction to the theatrical trailers, TV ads, promotion and interest by collectors even before the movie opens.

There are also publishing licensees, Abrams and Harper Collins,  who will put out books and other print products for adults and children.