Saturday, 22 August 2009

Seeing is believing

Spare a thought for one-time global monarch James Cameron, who's probably nursing a sore head this weekend. Having stayed out of the limelight for the last 12 years, since Titanic swept the boards at the Oscars, he's gearing up to reveal his long-awaited follow-up to the big boat movie, and expectations for Avatar couldn't be higher.

As part of the pre-release campaign, he and Twentieth Century Fox decided to declare August 21 'Avatar Day'. Building on the buzz from this year's Comic-Con, where preview footage was revealed to a breathlessly salivating press, the plan was to share an advanced preview with Joe Public to create advocacy and drive word-of-mouth.

So the publicity campaign went into overdrive, a two-minute teaser was launched and the public was invited to attend an exclusive presentation of 15 minutes of the movie that promises to redefine the very concept of film-making (Cameron is no stranger to hyperbole). Pre-fans (what else can you call someone who's a supporter of something that doesn't yet exist?) simply had to register with the website for free tickets so that they could attend one of these special screenings.

It's a great idea in theory, giving audiences a chance to see just what James Cameron's been talking about with a high-def, 3D presentation of his photo-real CGI characters and their other-worldly environments, rather than squinting at a heavily pixelated and compressed YouTube snippet.

Unfortunately, the concept seems to have fallen at the first hurdle. In the US, the ticket allocation server crashed due to 'over-subscription', with some conspiracy theorists even suggesting that Fox did this deliberately to sustain the perception of massive interest. But irrespective of any ticketing issues, the bigger problem seems to be that audience numbers were decidedly underwhelming. The question many bloggers are asking this weekend - if Cameron can't sell out a free screening, what hope does the movie have of recouping its rumoured $200 million budget?

Those who did attend the 3-D Imax screenings have responded with a shrug of their collective shoulders - sure the film looks great, but it won't change your life. The bigger problem seems to be the fact that, by selecting six or seven unconnected scenes to screen in their entirety, these exclusive previews felt more like a DVD presentation of deleted footage. Audiences that were supposed to be spending the weekend raving to their friends about Cameron's blue period are instead attempting to fill in the gaps between the out-of-context footage, to try and guess what the hell is going on.

The real mistake made by Fox was its attempt to 'manufacture buzz'. The kind of audience advocacy they were looking for can't be willed into life through a heavy-handed marketing campaign. It has to find its own way, starting small and growing virally. Fox tried to go too big too soon, in the process alienating the hard-core fanatics and confusing the masses. Fox needs to stop trying so hard and should just trust in its A-list director.

When Titanic originally opened in 1997, it did so with an unspectacular $28 million (considered a major flop). But it went on to find its audience thanks to uncontrived word-of-mouth recommendation, and spent a record-breaking 15 weeks in the top spot. If the studio believes in the film, it just needs to be patient - the film will find ultimately find the audience it deserves. After all, given that Avatar has been 14 years in the making, what's a few more months? In the meantime, here's the trailer if you haven't already seen it.

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