Sense of Wonder: Avatar a box office dud?

Avatar glowing creatureIt has been interesting to view some of the reactions to the box office returns of the special edition of AVATAR, which is currently playing in 812 3D venues across the country. Re-releases seldom pose a real threat to new films in the marketplace, and true to form AVATAR did not destroy the competition, leading some observers to declare that the special edition a failure.
For example, check out this comment from Time.com:

Avatar tanked in its heralded rerelease, finishing out of this weekend’s top 10 and further tarnishing the economic glamour of 3-D.

Let’s put this in perspective: we are in the late summer slump, when ticket sales fall off as potential buyers return to school. In this marketplace, AVATAR has the highest per-screen average of any 3D film currently playing, which includes not only the recent releases STEP UP 3D and PIRANHA 3D (the real box office disappointment of the bunch) but also such holdovers as DESPICABLE ME, TOY STORY 3, and SHREK FOREVER AFTER. I’m not exactly sure how a nine-month old movie – which boosts the per screen attendance in 3D venues – can tarnish the “economic glamour” of the process.
And check out this exercise in sophistry from the Los Angeles Times article “Rerelease redux: Was the opening of the ‘Avatar’ special edition a disappointment?“:

The movie grossed about $4 million on 812 screens here in the U.S. Several readers pointed out that the per-screen number this averages out to — just about $5,000 — was among the strongest of the weekend. And that number is indeed not terrible for a new opener — except for the fact that “Avatar” wasn’t a new opener; it had the benefit of eight months of marketing and buzz behind it. This is hardly some unknown character drama that has to fight for every ticket.

Emphasis mine. Against all logic, writer Steven Zeitchik is arguing that being a re-release is a huge marketing advantage that should have smoked the competition, when in fact the exact opposite is true. He also overlooks the fact that, until a few weeks ago, AVATAR was still playing a handful of regular, 2D engagements around the country, and it is available on Blu-ray disc. It is not as if the film has been unavailable in a way that would whet appetite. Under these circumstances a box office triumph should be seen as the exception rather than the rule.
The bottom line is this: Yes, 20th Century Fox would have been overjoyed if AVATAR: THE SPECIAL EDITION were doing twice as much business, but only out-sized expectations could frame the re-release as a failure rather than a disappointment. The re-release has added nearly $8-million to the film’s already huge worldwide total, and except for the top three box office hits (THE AMERICAN, MACHETE, and TAKERS) AVATAR has a higher per-screen average than any title currently in release. Do we really think there are many theatre-owners out there lamenting that presence of AVATAR on their screens?

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