Why Avatar doesn’t live up to the magical Disney formula

The most successful director of the last twenty years, James Cameron, is at it again. His new Avatar ‘Way of Water’ again beats every world record and is already in the top 10 of all time and will become the most watched movie ever. And yet the shoe pinches for the Disney machine, because Avatar remarkably does not meet the magic formula.

When James Cameron – also the director of the blockbuster Titanic – made his first plans for Avatar in 1996, the technology to make such a film was not at all ready. CGI – Computer Generated Imagery – was the new hype thanks to Jurassic Park, which saw the light in 1993, but it was not that easy to put real humanoids – human-like creatures – on screen. In 2009 he finally succeeded and the success was unparalleled. It became the most-watched movie ever with box office receipts of nearly $3 billion.

The magic formula = the franchise

It took another 13 years for number two to come out, but in the meantime the world of cinema had changed. For the last twenty years, the film industry has swears by one concept: the franchise.

Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, called a franchise a business that can be built on many platforms, in many regions and for a long time. You can also divide that formula into three.

Part 1: a successful series of films

A franchise naturally starts with a successful concept, usually in the form of a movie. That film is usually one of epic proportions, with very clear figures and an already dominant world in which you can dream away with a great sense of detail such as rings, masks, swords and shields.

The most successful series of films has only been around since 2008. The cinema revenues of the Marvel characters, including Iron Man and the X-Men, alone brought in 28 billion dollars. James Bond and Batman have each made 27 films to date.

According to figures from the Franchise Entertainment Research, 42 percent of all films in 2019 were franchise films, which also represented 83 percent (!) of all revenue worldwide.

Avatar will sit comfortably in the top list here, as 2 more new Avatars are planned.

Part 2: Longevity

Furthermore, a franchise is concerned all the time to bring in new viewers. The prequel serves to attract a new generation, which will then look at the first. There is one for some characters reboot needed to pass on the magic from father to son or daughter, just think of the release from Bambi in 2012. And sometimes a spinoff do the job, by having another character play the same role, but of a different ethnic group or gender. Wonderwoman is a good example.

But that’s not enough to fulfill the magic formula. For this, Avatar must also translate into merchandising.

Part 3: successful merchandising

Merchandising is the holy grail that spins the money machine and allows Hollywood to stay relevant against new entrants like Netflix. This allows them to generate cash for gigantic productions.

Harry Potter is a wonderful example. The Harry Potter franchise consists of 7 books, 8 feature films, 3 spinoffmovies, 30 video games, a Broadway show, 5 theme parks, an interactive website and so on. The soft drink Butterbeer was so popular that the first amusement park sold 1 million units in the first 6 months.

Harry Potter is now also a stage play in London (Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

We are a long way from the creative heyday of Walt Disney who was constantly creating original new characters. Today everything has to give way to maintain the franchise. And let that expertise be exactly what Disney excels in. Disney sold an incredible $56.2 billion in merchandise in 2021.

Since the mastodon from Burbank owns Avatar via 20th Century Fox, who produced the film, they can do their thing here. It is striking, however, that Avatar is very difficult to adapt to TV shows, games, action figures, playing cards, food products, etc. Disney has a very difficult time translating these characters into its theme parks, an essential condition for a successful franchise.

The top characters at Disney are Mickey Mouse, the princesses, Frozen, Winnie De Pooh and the Marvel cast. Avatar does not appear anywhere in those lists.

Why that evolution happened

While the true connoisseurs will say that the heyday of cinema was the 1970s and 1980s where creativity reigned supreme, this all changed in the 1990s. The reason is one of a business nature. The movie industry is a primarily American affair. There, in 1996, thetelecommunications Act’ that deregulated the TV and movie industry. As of now, the big players were able to buy out other smaller players – see Disney’s $4 billion purchase of Marvel – leaving the industry obsessed with scale.

Now only one parameter counted, partly prompted by the growing importance of Wall Street: recurring revenues and not the so unpredictable movie revenues where it really has always been impossible to predict hits.

That is why you and your children will still be watching the same characters in the future and we should not expect much more creativity from Hollywood. In 2054, James Bond will still fight the bad guys of that time, a younger Tom Cruise will still jump from burning planes and Mickey Mouse will still greet you when you enter Disneyland.


Xavier Verellen is an author and entrepreneur (www.qelviq.com)

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