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Fox banks on James Cameron's $380 million 'Avatar'

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By Michael White
Friday, December 18, 2009

James Cameron turned down a chance to make "Avatar" for Twentieth Century Fox more than a decade ago to wait until technology caught up with his imagination.

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Audiences will decide this weekend whether the 3-D science-fiction adventure was worth the delay and the estimated $380 million that News Corp.'s Fox and partners Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners spent to make and market the movie.

As of Friday, "Avatar" accounted for 87 percent of weekly ticket sales at online vendor Fandango.com. It could generate $75 million in U.S. ticket sales this weekend, according to Gitesh Pandya, editor of New York-based Box Office Guru.

"Avatar" was shot using a dual-camera 3-D system that Cameron, 55, invented with partner Vince Pace after the director's 1997 success with "Titanic," the all-time top-grossing film. Executives at Fox, the studio that backed "Titanic," were willing to start work on "Avatar" almost right away.

"I thought it was the best project he had," Bill Mechanic, the chairman of Fox films at the time, said in an interview. "He had the vision for it."

Cameron didn't think the technology was ready. He teamed with Pace, who specializes in making film equipment for tough locations, and spent 10 years developing a camera system that mimics the human eye to add realism to 3-D imagery. "Avatar" is Cameron's first feature film since "Titanic."

With a production budget of $230 million, "Avatar" ranks among the most expensive films, according to the Internet Movie Database. Walt Disney Co.'s 2007 release "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" cost $300 million and Sony Corp.'s "Spider-Man 3" totaled $258 million, the IMDB Web site says.

Box-office forecast

"We know what our break-even threshold is," Cameron said in an interview, without giving box-office targets. "Everybody at Fox is starting to relax a bit because people really are responding positively and the tracking is way up."

Cameron said, "I don't think this film is going to behave like 'Titanic,' where it just defies gravity, but because of the 3-D, we know historically 3-D films tend to hold in and have legs."

"Titanic," also released in December, was in theaters until the following September and was No. 1 for 17 weeks, according to Box Office Mojo, an online movie tracking site based in Burbank, Calif.

"Avatar" may take in $320 million to $400 million in the United States and Canada, according to Tony Wible, an analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott LLC in Philadelphia. It also may keep Hollywood and theaters focused on 3-D technology.


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