LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- By the time you read this, James Cameron's "Avatar" could very well have become the fifth movie in history to gross more than $1 billion worldwide at the box office, helped along by pricey tickets that brought in a projected $325 million domestically after only three weekends in theaters. So how did 20th Century Fox pull off what could be its highest-grossing movie of all time without the aid of a franchise, an A-list star or a historical event, created by a filmmaker who hasn't had a blockbuster ("Titanic") in 12 years?
In a word: patience. And in two words: mass marketing. With all the talk of the "Twitter effect" and social media making or breaking Hollywood releases, Fox took a decidedly big-picture approach to go to market with the most expensive film ever made.
"Avatar" was a costly gamble for Fox -- its production budget was once confirmed by the studio to be $237 million but believed to have climbed as high as $300 million with an additional estimated $150 million global marketing outlay (a global figure on par with Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight," the second-highest grossing film of all time). So the studio had to manage its own expectations along with that of moviegoers.
In fact, no footage from "Avatar" was shown until a few months before its wide release -- during ComicCon in summer 2009 -- which was a tactical part of Fox's strategy to manage the film's hype. "We consciously held back, because this isn't a movie you want to start being too loud about too early on," said Pamela Levine, who, along with Tony Sella, is 20th Century Fox's marketing president. The execs saw a rough, 3-D-free cut of the film in summer 2008, 18 months before its theatrical release.
"We knew then it was an amazing story, and we knew it couldn't be told in 30-second [spots] right away. But because of the availability of materials and how long it took to finish the film, we weren't going to have the materials we needed until the end of the summer [of 2009]," Mr. Sella said. "It was a live-action film with groundbreaking special effects, not a special-effects story, so the challenge was to keep that horse in the barn."
"Avatar" is set partly in the "real world" in 2154, and also on the fictional moon Pandora, where the 3-D, blue-skinned Na'avi tribe that populate the film's ads are introduced, so a more dynamic ad format than just a 30-second TV spot was crucial to illustrating the film's unique look and feel.
The studio teamed with Coke Zero and McDonald's for extensive promotions that gave fans access to the virtual augmented-reality world of Pandora. Consumers could download an AR application from AVTR.com and scan their Coke Zero can or 12-pack to take a virtual ride in the Samson helicopter featured in the film. McDonald's took a similar approach with its Happy Meal and Big Mac tie-ins, creating a virtual "Avatar" space called McWorld, where fans could interact with other aspects of the Pandora environment. Both marketers had large-scale media buys to promote the tie-ins, including general-market TV buys from Coke and multicultural TV, print and radio ads from McDonald's. LG and Panasonic pitched in for global tie-ins to cross-promote products with similar 3-D innovations, while Mattel partnered on the toy merchandising front.
The first theatrical trailer clocked in at three minutes and 30 seconds, followed by a series of long-form TV buys -- courtesy of some News Corp. sibling synergy -- in early November on Fox's World Series and National Football League coverage, with multiple 30-second spots in the same commercial break, followed by the full trailer airing during pod breaks for "Glee" and "House."
"All the partners raised the bar in terms of meeting our demands to come back with original content," Mr. Sella said. "They had had their hands tied, too, because of the availability of materials. But they did a great job of embracing the idea of the film and translating it."
Just how mass was the marketing? Fox didn't even have a sponsored Twitter account to speak of, so the studio can't even take credit for the film's daily appearance as a trending topic on the microblogging site after its theatrical debut -- a surge of organic word-of-mouth that certainly didn't hurt.
Despite all the advance hype and awareness generated in a relatively short period of time from its Comic-Con debut, the movie's international blockbuster status didn't seem like a sure thing at first. Its $77 million domestic debut was enough to make it the 25th biggest opening of all time, but fell short of the $100 million-plus many analysts were predicting, thanks in part to snow storms along the East Coast. An additional $150 million worldwide, however, pointed to the movie already gaining serious traction in other countries, hitting No. 1 in 107 of 108 markets.
After a solid first holiday week in theaters, racking up multiple single-day totals of $16 million or more, "Avatar" careened toward a $75.6 million second weekend, dropping less than 2%. Overall, "Avatar" helped Hollywood break its own record for the most tickets sold in one weekend, selling $278 million worth of stubs vs. the previous record set by "The Dark Knight" in July 2008 with $253 million.
"Titanic" broke box office records at $600 million, so "Avatar" could be halfway toward reaching that milestone by today. "Avatar" could also break that record a lot faster because "Titanic" was grossing a steady stream of $25 million to $30 million a weekend up until the Oscars, so its reign was a lot longer. Theoretically, "Avatar" could out-gross "Titanic" by Valentine's Day if it keeps up the same momentum as Mr. Cameron's previous blockbuster.
Of course, a key aspect of "Avatar"'s acceleration toward historic numbers is the fact that 3-D tickets for the movie are selling at an average $15 premium, more than double the $7.18 average price movie tickets were selling for in 2008 and three times the $4.59 average in 1997 when "Titanic" cruised through America, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.
Now that "Avatar" has become a box office behemoth, other movie studios praise it as a rising tide to lift all sales. "As jealous as any of us are, and everyone in the movie industry should admit that, it's a fantastic thing for this business," said a rival studio marketing chief. "The fact that such a broad audience has connected with it is very exciting for the industry, the possibilities of stories we'll all be able to tell have opened up, but also the pure excitement of moviegoing has all been reinforced."