‘Avatar’ joins tradition of the Hollywood colossus


NEW YORK (AP) — It’s fair to say that it’s a risky venture create a movie about an exotically colored, 10-foot-tall tribe called the Na’vi and spend more money making it than any other film in the history of Hollywood.

Yet investing hundreds of millions of dollars in James Cameron’s “Avatar” (exact figures aren’t available but the total cost, including marketing, is expected to run close to half a billion dollars) is a bet likely to pay off for 20th Century Fox.

Cameron has a box-office track record matched by few. And, in case there was any worry, Fox is running an enormous advertising campaign that included the unusual step of previewing 15 minutes of the film nationwide in August.

But however many millions “Avatar” earns, it clearly sits firmly in the grand tradition of audacious Hollywood spectacles — the kind of over-the-top, go-for-broke grabs for silver screen glory.

There have been movies that took risks with social progressiveness (“The Defiant Ones,” ”Brokeback Mountain”), that gambled with casting (“Valkyrie,” ”Precious”) and that upended convention (“Taxi Driver,” ”Pulp Fiction”).

But no roll of the cinematic dice captivates quite like the true Hollywood colossus — those behemoths where ego and budget swell in tandem. They have a way of either reaching stratospheric heights or bombing faster than you can say “Gigli.”

Hollywood has become increasingly risk-adverse in recent years, but it has, on occasion, bet the house. As producer Peter Guber once said, “Inside every disaster is a hit film and inside every hit film are the seeds of a disaster.”

A sampling of moviedom’s risky business:

—”Titanic”: Yes, Cameron has been here before. The run-up to the release of 1997’s “Titanic” had all the hallmarks of an enormous flop in the making: cost overruns (its production budget reached a then record $200 million), blown deadlines, a 17-million-gallon tank — you know, the usual stuff. But it made $600 million domestically and $1.2 billion internationally and won 11 Academy Awards.

—”Waterworld”: Water was good for “Titanic,” but unkind to Kevin Costner’s 1995 soggy epic. Costner, not long off “Dances With Wolves,” ”Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “JFK,” was then a big star. Budget costs ballooned, the central set sank and Costner clashed with director Kevin Reynolds, eventually replacing him during editing. With a budget of $175 million, it grossed $88 million at the box office for Universal Pictures. Costner’s follow-up, 1997’s “The Postman,” didn’t improve on things.

—”The Lord of the Ring” trilogy: Eight years and $285 million is a lot to sink into a director unproven in large-scale films. But New Line’s gamble that Peter Jackson could bring home J.R.R. Tolkien’s story — and that the audience would be there for the second and third films — paid off in spades. Shooting all three of the films together was a classic boom-or-bust tactic. The trilogy made $2.9 billion worldwide, better even than the original “Star Wars” trilogy.

—”Heaven’s Gate”: As much as “Rings” filled the coffers at New Line, Michael Cimino’s 1980 Western emptied them at United Artists. It’s generally viewed as the film that prompted studios to reel in their talented directors, who had found freedom in the 1960s and 1970 while making some of Hollywood’s best films. Made for an estimated $42 million (or about $149 million today, accounting for inflation), it grossed only $3 million. The New York Times compared the 219-minute film to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.”

—”Passion of the Christ”: Though “Heaven’s Gate” proved the perils of a headstrong director, Mel Gibson showed that some filmmakers, when given latitude, can make a monstrous hit. “Passion” (2004) was produced by Gibson’s Icon Productions, giving him free rein to make the movie he wanted. Made for just $30 million, it wasn’t financially risky. But as an openly religious, subtitled film, much of it in Aramaic, Gibson’s reputation was certainly on the line. As one of the most profitable films ever made, grossing $371 million domestically, it wasn’t the movie that hurt Gibson’s image but anti-Semitic remarks he made during a DUI arrest.

—”Cleopatra”: Perhaps the high-water mark for indulgence has to go to Fox’s 1963 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — the Brangelina of its day. A case study in runaway costs, its budget rose to a then incredible $44 million — or $306 million in 2008 dollars. The 70mm film was advertised (and the spots for the 3-D “Avatar” have a similar whiff of hyperbole) as “the entertainment of a lifetime.” It was more successful than most flops, earning $26 million at the box-office, or about $108 million in 2008 dollars. Though it nearly ruined 20th Century Fox, it’s believed to have eventually made a profit.

—”Pirates of the Caribbean”: In retrospect, Disney’s pirate series seems like an obvious hit. But Disney’s earlier tries at turning theme-park attractions into movies (“The Haunted Mansion,” ”The Country Bears”) had not done well. Johnny Depp’s legion of adoring fans might be shocked to recall that the actor was also viewed as box-office poison at the time. Yet the three films (2003’s “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” 2006’s “Dead Man’s Chest” and 2007’s “At World’s End”) collectively earned $2.6 billion worldwide, a huge relief to Disney since they were extremely expensive to make: $140 million, $225 million and $300 million, respectively.

Now, any recognizable name — even toys such as Hasbro’s Battleship game — are viewed as ripe for adaptation. Original blockbusters such as “Avatar” are the oddball.