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11.28.09

James Cameron's Titanic Gamble

With perhaps the highest budget in movie history and a 3D technology that leaves audiences cold, the director's forthcoming Avatar has Hollywood holding its breath.

When audiences failed to turn out in droves for Robert Zemeckis’s dark version of A Christmas Carol earlier this month, executives at various studios started fretting anew about the costly technique that was once believed to be the future of movies.

Some of the mightiest directors in the industry are besotted with 3-D and motion-capture (in which actors perform with sensors attached to their bodies and their characters are filled in later with computer animation). Zemeckis is devoted to it. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are using it for The Adventures of Tintin, the film based on the Belgian comic due in December 2011. And of course the formula will be on display in James Cameron’s long-awaited sci-fi spectacle, Avatar, next month.

“There’s a scene early in the movie where something jumps out of the screen. Jim said, `I just did that so that they would know I know how to do it. But then I stopped doing it because that’s not what 3D is; 3D is bringing the audience completely into the environment of the movie.’ ”

There’s a lot for silverback directors to love about the 3D motion capture combo. It imbues them with the power to create worlds and minimizes the time that they must spend with actual mortal actors. But for the suits, the question is whether this technique can really help save their business. Some were already pessimistic going in to this season, and A Christmas Carol did not encourage them.

“Zemeckis is doing films that are aimed at adults but using a technique that hasn’t quite worked,” says a veteran producer of A-list films. “I worry that’s what’s happened with Cameron’s movie as well.” The alien characters in the Avatar trailers look “like giant goats,” this producer says, adding, “I don’t believe in motion capture.”

A studio chief agrees. “These characters have dead eyes,” he says. “Bob Zemeckis could have done a great job with A Christmas Carol in live action.” As for Avatar, he adds, “I’m curious to see it—I’m not anxious to see it.”

Another veteran executive offers the technique some qualified support. With Avatar, she notes, “they’re selling me a story that I want to see—a classic story that’s enhanced by technology and promises to take me to a world I haven’t seen before.” In her view, 3-D motion capture has its uses and it’s wrong to condemn the medium because of A Christmas Carol, a movie that she calls “ill-designed.”

Still, she describes Avatar as “iffy.” And that may not be the adjective that executives at Fox and their partners on the film want to hear. Given that it’s taken 12 years for Cameron to produce a follow up to Titanic, and considering the immense cost of the technology, the industry and the media have been guessing at Avatar’s budget, with the Los Angeles Times recently putting it at $310 million with additional marketing costs of about $150 million. Other estimates are even higher. (Fox co-chairman Jim Gianopulos told Reuters earlier this week that rumors the movie will cost $500 million are “ridiculous,” acknowledging nonetheless that it was “quite expensive.”)

Studios are never happy when the conversation about a film focuses on money but that seems to happen a lot when Cameron is in the director’s chair. It’s mandatory to note that many underestimated the might of Titanic, still the number-one box-office phenomenon of all time.

Avatar producer Jon Landau and Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman have both said that the film has the “emotionality” that previous motion-capture films have lacked. Cameron used tiny cameras mounted on his performers’ faces to avoid the dead-eye look that has been criticized so vociferously in Zemeckis’ recent films, Polar Express and Beowulf.

No one has seen a full version of Avatar yet but those who have seen pieces of it say the technique is more immersive than flashy. Gianopulos recently described it this way: “There’s a scene early in the movie where something jumps out of the screen. Jim said, `I just did that so that they would know I know how to do it. But then I stopped doing it because that’s not what 3D is; 3D is bringing the audience completely into the environment of the movie.’ ”

It’s entirely possible that the environment of Avatar is more appealing than the gloomy world that Zemeckis created in A Christmas Carol—so creepy that Disney felt obligated to warn parents it might be unsuitable for small children. But as Zemeckis burrows ever deeper into his love of technology, he seems to have lost contact with the humanity and charm of earlier movies like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump.

At this point, according to blogger Jim Hill, who writes about Disney, even Zemeckis is arguing privately that Avatar will be the real breakthrough for his favored technique. Through a spokesman, Zemeckis declined to comment.

Meanwhile, with Disney shaking up management at its film studio, observers like Hill wonder how much patience the company will have for Zemeckis’s costly explorations of new technology. Under the old and recently dispatched regime, Disney gave Zemeckis a multi-year deal and built him a studio in Northern California at an estimated cost of $80 million. (Hill says this is in spite of the fact that Disney animation guru John Lasseter is not a big fan of motion capture.) But when the website Pajiba reported that Zemeckis is considering an adaptation of The Nutcracker, commenters weren’t exactly doing pirouettes.

“What’s with this ruin-Christmas obsession?” one asked. “Is Bob Zemeckis the Grinch?”

“Jeebus someone make him stop,” said another. (Of course, the headline, “Zemeckis to Uglimate The Nutcracker,” might have set a certain unappreciative tone.)

And Zemeckis shows no sign of stopping In September, Disney confirmed that he’ll make a 3-D remake of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Naturally, given that the material is sacred to many, that news prompted more flurries of hostility on sites like Slashfilm.

For now, Disney is standing by its man. “Bob is a visionary filmmaker with a great track record,” a studio spokesperson said in response to my query. “We believe in telling great stories through his filmmaking style.”

Time will tell whether Cameron justifies the faith that's been placed in him. The math may not be simple. If Avatar doesn't approach Titanic numbers—and that seems unlikely—it might be deemed a disappointment. That may not be fair, but it's a hazard of the game when you're spending in the hundreds of millions in a bid to be king of the 3-D world.

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Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.