We all know James Cameron’s “Avatar” sits comfortably as the most profitable movie in box office history with $2.78 billion dollars in worldwide sales. And we know Cameron’s “Titanic” is trailing only slightly with $2.1 billion dollars in sales. But why? How can James Cameron not only create the two most profitable films of all time, but do it while working on two separate ideas? “Avatar” and “Titanic” are the only two movies in the top 9 not to be sequels of other recent films, and number 10, 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland,” is adapted from a work that has seen over a dozen other films. How does he do it?
1. Intriguing trailers – The official 1996 “Titanic” movie trailer, while having its inevitable ’90s aura, covers so much ground in 2:34 that it’s rather unlikely that you don’t come away with a desire to see more. I’ve seen it a dozen times, but just the trailer made me want to go back. It has passionate love, blazing guns, big names, beautiful images…and that James Horner score! It’s everything that “Titanic” is famous for, all rolled into one – like the great trailers do. And “Avatar” is no different. The computer animated views – trees, floating islands, creatures of every shape and size – are all shown in just the short amount of time needed to draw you in for more. It sets up good vs. evil, gives us a few names we know and love, and lets us on our way – “You want more?” it says. “Well come and get it.”
2. Relatable themes – Only a handful of Titanic survivors lived long enough to see the movie in 1997. Not a single person has ever been to Pandora. But in both cases, Cameron made the world understand by telling a relatable story with relatable themes. In “Avatar,” a good vs. evil story tells of the terrible Earth-dwellers and their wretched attempts to mine the Navi’s world of their natural element. Is the war in the Middle East the same story? Are we killing for oil? In this age of environmentalism, the fact that the trees have interconnected nerves – they live in equality with the people – is no coincidence. As story of love, conscience, and morals, “Avatar” reached millions of people on many levels. In “Titanic,” the connections are even easier. A forbidden love story that everyone has known at some point in their life. A separation of classes, all humbled by a terrible tragedy. The overbearing boyfriend vs. the one who has nothing to lose. These are common motifs in the world around us, not just in movies. Everyone wants to be the king of the world. “Titanic” just lets us.
3. Stars…or lack thereof – Stars sell, but are they necessary? Leonardo Dicaprio wasn’t huge until he boarded the luxurious vessel, and Kate Winslet was barely on the scene. When “Titanic” left Irish shores, these two got their big chances. Did America go because Cameron avoided Denzel, Clooney, Roberts, Pitt, Halle, Hanks, and everyone else that was in their prime in 1997? I would have. To see a movie with all the glamor, sheer, and magnificence as “Titanic” trailers showed, without having the big names detracting from the realism? Count me in. And “Avatar” had even fewer. Sigourney Weaver is the only actor we may even call a star in 2009, even if some of us had seen Zoe Saldana before (but not like this!). It’s tempting, even now, to see a movie that has all the wonder without all the stars. “Avatar” made stars. Look at some more recent successful movies: the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” crazes, “Transformers,” “Jurassic Park.” They didn’t use huge names…they made stars. Clearly in some cases that hasn’t met an abundance come award season, but they all made their share of profits. With “Avatar 2” on the horizon, I can’t imagine it doesn’t get even better for Forbes’ 3rd most powerful celebrity in the world. I know I’ll keep lining his pockets.