What the news biz can learn from "Avatar"

Internet piracy isn't killing the movie business. James Cameron's beautiful world explains why

Published January 4, 2010 8:52PM (EST)

It's always nice when anecdotal evidence matches up with empirical reality. I took my kids to see an 11:00 a.m. showing of "Avatar" on Sunday, and I was impressed to see the theater almost full when I arrived, 15 minutes early, and even more intrigued to see, as I exited, a line waiting to get in for the next show. That seemed like pretty good business for a movie in its 17th day of release, and sure enough, on Monday morning came the news that "Avatar" has already cleared more than $1 billion in ticket sales.

That doesn't just make James "Titanic" Cameron the first man to direct two billion-dollar movies. It also sends a clear message to all those industries getting remade from top to bottom by the pressures exerted by the Internet and associated computer technologies: Keep innovating, and you will keep finding customers.

Sure, "Avatar's" "Dances with Aliens" plot is utterly predictable from the first scene and the screenplay is clunky. Conservatives are looking down their noses at the imperialism-is-bad/Gaia-is-good politics and there's something odd about a film extolling the unity of all living things that devotes so much time to war, death and massive explosions. But setting all that aside, "Avatar" is a film that people want to see, because, quite simply, the 3D special effects used to create the astonishingly beautiful alien world of Pandora are, ahem, out of this world.

A quote from the Wall Street Journal rings true:

"Here's what's happening: I think everybody has to see 'Avatar' once," said Fox distribution executive Bert Livingston. "Even people who don't normally go to the movies, they've heard about it and are saying, 'I have to see it.' Then there's those people seeing it multiple times."

Newspaper publishers and music industry executives should be taking note. The Internet, somehow, is not destroying the movie business. Could that be because film-makers are still finding ways to make the movie experience something more than can be downloaded or cable-broadcast or Netflixed? I always find it odd when audiences applaud at the end of a film -- who do they imagine is hearing their cheers? -- but I understood the urge after "Avatar." James Cameron took us to another place, a realm of fantasy and dreams that lived up to and surpassed the hype. That's value given in return for cold hard cash.

Meanwhile, recording studio execs still cry murder at every pirated MP3 and publishers scream that the evil Google-zilla is stealing all their content. But what they're not doing -- or at least haven't done well enough -- is give their readers and listeners something they've never seen or heard or read before. And so others jump into the breach: Apple with its iPod and iTunes and iPhone; Game-makers with their ever more immersive and addictive offerings; social media startups like Twitter and Facebook that make human connectivity absurdly easy.

Sitting in a theater being dazzled by James Cameron, I found myself suddenly feeling pretty good about the future. The technology behind "Avatar" is amazing -- but even more incredible is the artistic creativity inherent in the good old human mind. All the CGI tools in the world aren't worth anything without the will to do something interesting with them. I wish my own industry was hearing that message more loudly, rather than pathetically striving to find ways to turn back the tide.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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