In a few hours, I’m going to head out to see Avatar, perhaps the most polarizing and hyped movie of this decade. There has been skepticism about the film from the beginning, and the public has so far balked at the odd-looking blue aliens they’ve seen in the trailer, while filmophiles are celebrating the release of the film like it’s the second coming of Christ.
I’ve been avoiding looking at the critical reception for the film to keep me unbiased until I see it, but despite my best efforts, I’ve heard both good and bad things, though the general sense I get is that critics are digging it so far.
But with twelve years sunk into it by a director many believe to be something of a madman, a budget said to be inching toward $300M, and levels of hype reaching critical mass, is there even a chance that Avatar can succeed?
I decided to take a look back at five other now-classic films that struggled with early production problems, initial audience rejection, critical panning and gargantuan costs, only to overcome and become true icons in the annals of film history. Observe:
Star Wars (1977)
Believe it or not, the original Star Wars went through its share of trials before it became the dominant entertainment force of the century. Lucas penned rewrite after rewrite of the original script, as both and he and the studio thought it wasn’t working. His big breakthrough came when he realized that the universe he created was too big to be contained in one film, and started writing with sequels in mind.
But even after his “good” draft of Star Wars, during filming, those on the cast and crew and production team were often heard to say that the whole project was ridiculous, and would never work, and reportedly early test screenings garnered some poor responses from audiences who couldn’t follow what was going on.
That all changed however, when the film actually made it to release. It was immediately beloved by both critics and audiences everywhere, and exploded into perhaps the most famous film series of all time.
Interestingly enough, rumor has it that since James Cameron is trying to make Avatar the Star Wars of this century, Lucas has actually been considering saddling up for another trilogy to compete. Hmm…
It’s the movie that practically bankrupted 20th Century Fox, and lives on in infamy to this day. The film set out with a budget of $2M, which miraculously swelled to $44M by the time all was said and done. And keep in mind that’s 1963 dollars. Today? That would cost over $300M.
The massive budget produced a six hour film that was literally cut in half by the studio, and when it was finally released in theaters, it was lambasted by critics for glaring historical inaccuracy and shoddy acting.
But despite all this, the film eventually recouped it’s massive budget with worldwide box office receipts, and managed to win four Academy Awards It’s tough to say that the film is “good” per se, but despite all its problems, still managed to be pretty successful in its own right.
Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)
There was initially NO ONE who thought this movie was a good idea. The pirate genre had been dead for eons, and the movie was allegedly based on a damn theme park ride. Both journalists and confused audiences who watched a non-revealing teaser trailer expected the film to be a complete waste of time.
Add on top of this the fact that Disney was sinking $140M into the film, and it became clear that the movie would have to do some serious business if it in any way wanted to make that massive budget up.
But lo and behold, the original film was a smash hit, and between it and it’s two sequel, the Pirates series has grossed over $2.6 BILLION dollars worldwide, and a fourth film is on the horizon. It also created one of the most iconic movie characters in history in Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow.
Snow White (1937)
Yeah, I wasn’t expecting to see this on here either, but the process of getting Snow White to the big screen was nothing short of hellish. Walt Disney had to fight tooth and nail to get this film made, and it almost bankrupted him in the process. Both his brother and his wife attempted to talk him out of it (his wife at one point famously said, “No one’s going to pay a dime to see a dwarf picture”), and eventually Hollywood started calling the project “Disney’s Folly.” Those are fightin’ words in 1937!
The film’s eventual costs wound up being $1.4M, which you can imagine was a shit ton of money in the ‘30s, and Disney had to mortgage his house to help pay for it.
But Disney’s first feature film would go on to be a great success, and was the first in an almost neverending series of classic animated kids films over the past seventy years. Snow White itself eventually would earn $184M around the world, and when adjusted for inflation, the film still stands as one of the top ten highest grossing movies of all time.
Ah yes, I thought it fitting to conclude with James Cameron’s last opus before I head off to go see Avatar for myself. Titanic was the Cleopatra of its day, with journalists astonished at how in the world the film could make up its budget which had ballooned all the way to $200M.
There were reports that Cameron had gone crazy, as horror reports began to surface from the set about his dictator-like directorial style and a bevy of accidents and mishaps constantly plagued production. Early critical consensus tore the film apart too, saying things like, “The number of times in this unbelievably badly-written script that the two [lead characters] refer to each other by name was an indication of just how dramatically the script lacked anything more interesting for the actors to say,” and filmmaker Robert Altman even called it, “The most dreadful piece of work I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
But alas, the rest is history. Titanic went on to be the most successful movie of all time, grossing $1.8 bilion worldwide when all was said and done, and if that wasn’t enough, the film was nominated for a record-tying 14 Oscars and won 11. There are many who will still maintain that Titanic sucks, but it’s pretty hard to argue with the objective facts.
So this is a perfect bridge to today. Once again, Cameron has a massive film on deck with an absurd budget and a slew of negative buzz from the average moviegoer, but will he overcome? Will Avatar be another film to headline a future list like this? I think it will, and now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to go find out.