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‘Avatar’s’ Impact on the Culture Is Undeniable

It’s just invisible and (mostly) bad.
January 4, 2023
‘Avatar’s’ Impact on the Culture Is Undeniable
TAIYANG, CHINA - JANUARY 07: (CHINA OUT) The Audience watch the 3D film 'Avatar' through 3D glasses at a cinema on January 7, 2009 in Taiyuan, Shanxi province of China. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images)

Before we get to Avatar—the movie with “no cultural footprint” that nevertheless spawned the highest-grossing worldwide release of 2022—let us contemplate the fate of Babylon.

Damien Chazelle’s early-Hollywood epic has received mixed notices from critics and has been mostly ignored by audiences since its release two weeks ago, prompting lots of “well what did anyone expect” and “how did Chazelle snooker anyone into giving him $80 million for that movie” sniggers. And, indeed, “three-hour ode to/critique of classic Hollywood’s excesses that opens with a literal ton of elephant dung” doesn’t, well, sound like a winner on paper, at least when you put it as bluntly as that.

But maybe its existence makes more sense if I describe it this way: “Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie recently starred in a nearly three-hour epic about Hollywood history directed by a wild auteur with a budget of nearly $100 million and that movie grossed nearly $400 million worldwide and nabbed the studio a handful of Oscar trophies. Eighty million dollars is a steal for a movie like that.”

I’m not saying Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is the sole reason Babylon was greenlit—though the film did begin development in July 2019, the same month Tarantino’s masterpiece rolled out, and Babylon was snapped up by Paramount in November of that year, well after Once’s success was obvious—but I am saying that the success of the earlier film is at least one way to understand why Babylon exists. In Hollywood, success has many fathers, but it also has many offspring.

Avatar, as the most successful film of all time, has had surprisingly few offspring. Thirteen years between sequels is nearly unheard of, even if James Cameron did something similar with The Terminator and Terminator 2 (a seven-year gap between them).

Except . . . except . . . it makes no sense to think of Avatar’s “cultural footprint” in terms of direct sequels! The cultural footprint of Avatar isn’t measured in Na’vi cosplay or quotable lines or even the number of suicides Pandora’s unreality may or may not have inspired. The cultural footprint of Avatar is all around us. We’re living in James Cameron’s cinematic atmosphere, breathing it in. Like oxygen, it is largely invisible. Like oxygen, it has sustained an ecosystem. And, like oxygen, in too-great quantities it is toxic.

The first and most obvious impact of Avatar on the cinematic landscape was the rush to cash in on the 3D craze Pandora’s wondrous forests inspired. More than a decade—and only a handful of films that made good use of the technology—later, it’s easy to forget just how impressive that film was, visually. It’s a cliché, but true: Audiences had never seen anything like it. And studios had never seen anything like the revenue it generated. So we got a bunch of 3D movies. Oceans of 3D movies.

Some of these were shot in native 3D. Most of them were converted after the fact. None of them looked as good as Cameron’s effort. I genuinely cannot remember how many movies I saw in 3D between about 2010 and 2014; critics were generally required to see these movies in 3D at press screenings, the thinking being that we should see it how the studio wanted people to see it (i.e., with a surcharge).

I don’t have solid proof of this, but I think studios realized over the years that critics hated the format and Rotten Tomatoes scores were suffering as a result; eventually, they gave up and moved critics back to 2D screenings. But the annoyance we felt was shared by general audiences, and moviegoer alienation helped sever what should’ve been an economic lifeline for theaters.

The mass adoption of 3D was aided by another change accelerated by Avatar, the switch from traditional celluloid projectors to digital projectors. This was a move that had been in the works for several years—George Lucas was rumored to have threatened withholding Revenge of the Sith from any theater that hadn’t made the switch, a move he denied as “suicide” since there were only a couple thousand such projectors in operation back in 2005—but Avatar’s success was the real impetus for getting things underway. By 2015, 90 percent of screens were digital; these days, the average multipex moviegoever is likely to find a film projector in operation only when Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, or Paul Thomas Anderson is on the marquee and they’ve got a special 70mm print making the rounds.

There are aesthetic arguments to be made about the quality of celluloid versus the quality of digital; the tactile nature, the whirring of the film through the projector, that sort of thing. Grant that I’m sympathetic to and agree with many of these arguments. The question today is less one of aesthetics and more one of business, and the business case for digital is basically airtight. Digital projectors reduce the cost of delivering prints for the studio to nearly zero dollars; it reduces the cost for theaters by virtually eliminating projectionists; and it increases the flexibility of what can be shown.

In theory, this means that smaller movies and bigger movies could exist on something like a similar footing, blockbusters sitting one theater over from indies, flexibility providing something for every niche audience. An article on the website of Northwestern’s management school makes the utopian case: “Pre-digitization, ‘the cost of physical prints was squeezing out small, entrepreneurial indie films, and so those types of films didn’t have access to the market,’ [marketing professor Eric] Anderson says. Post-conversion, the economics changed: digital movies were less expensive, and there was no logistical impediment to showing a niche movie only once or twice per day, making the investment worthwhile.”

As anyone gazing upon Cameron’s Ozymandian landscape understands, the utopian case has not exactly come to pass. Yes, you’ve had success stories like Fathom Events and Crunchyroll, companies that can quickly locate venues that are likely to have big audiences for their wares and get product to them in no time. And digital hasn’t killed off the indie space: A24 and Neon have robust distribution networks, and A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once was a surprise hit, breaking $100 million worldwide. But a quick perusal of the yearly chart shows the real story: Big movies are bigger than ever (eight grossed more than $340 million), the mid-high-grosser has largely disappeared (no movie grossed more than $191 million but less than $342 million), and small-budget stuff is dominated by horror distributed by big studios (Smile, The Black Phone, Scream, etc.).

Perhaps most distressingly, the prestige picture for adults has basically died: The Fabelmans, Tár, Babylon, The Whale, Empire of Light, The Banshees of Inisherin, Women Talking, Triangle of Sadness: If any of these movies tops $25 million, it’ll be a miracle, a wonder powered by awards-season legs.

Sifting through the sands of our cultural detritus, one can suggest several reasons for the decline of this specific market segment. Longform prestige TV shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones siphoned off the intellectual energy, which put a tarnish on Oscar’s shine. COVID-19 acclimated people to avoiding public spaces like theaters, which in turn led to a boost in streaming services and prompted studios to redirect product from theaters to their shiny and expensive new toys. Studios, sensing weakness, pushed for shortened theatrical windows to get product off the big screen and on the small screen quicker.

The problem with all of these explanations is that they should apply to blockbusters and prestige pictures alike—yet the market is more top-heavy than ever. And this is, perhaps, the true cultural legacy of Avatar: the suggestion that the theater is a place where you go see something that you simply cannot see at home. Where you travel for an experience. Call it a theme park ride or whatever else you want, but absent massive financial outlays, you cannot see a 3D movie at home like you can in a theater and you cannot experience Dolby Atmos sound at home like you can in a theater and you cannot immerse yourself in an IMAX screen at home like you can in a theater.

I would argue that a movie like Tár benefits from some of the same things (sound design in particular), but I am very much in the minority at this point: Most folks seem fine waiting to watch The Fabelmans and other such movies in the comfort of their own home on their quarantine-upgraded TVs. Audiences by and large now seem to believe the theatrical experience should emphasize the experience.

And look, there’s absolutely a place for that. Avatar: The Way of Water is a reminder that a truly amazing experience in a theater is something to be treasured. We can quibble about the plot all day (Lord knows I did) but what’s undeniable is that The Way of Water, with its advanced motion capture and its perfectly rendered 3D and its utterly immersive high frame rate format, is simply unlike anything anyone’s ever seen before. (In that it is similar to the original; I find it incredible to believe people argue against the cultural relevance of Avatar even while championing movies it made possible like the recent Planet of the Apes remakes, Ready Player One, and much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) The success of this picture—which will almost certainly wind up among the five highest-grossing films of all time before all is said and done and could easily end up in the top three—will mean it is hailed as the savior of theaters.

Which will push distributors and exhibitors alike to invest yet more heavily in the experience model. Which will further reinforce the idea that theaters are for experiences, rather than artistry. Which will convince still more people that it’s fine to wait 17 days to watch the latest movie for adults at home. And on and on.

This is the real cultural impact of Avatar, and a reason why gotcha nonsense like “I bet you can’t name the lead character from the highest-grossing film of all time” or “why aren’t there any subreddits dedicated to fighting over Pandora canon?” rings so hollow to anyone who pays any attention to the world of moviegoing. From The Jazz Singer to Easy Rider to Jaws to Avatar, it has long been impossible to separate the business of Hollywood from the art of Hollywood. So it is with Avatar, too: Its cultural and financial impact are inseparable.

But I understand it. Everyone loves their little gotchas. It makes us feel clever. So allow me to dispense with the first. His name is Jakesully, Toruk Makto of Toruk Maktos. Look on his works, ye mighty. And despair.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association