Thursday, January 21, 2010

Culture Shock 01.21.10: 'Avatar' mania opens a window of opportunity

I must be the only person on Earth who hasn't seen "Avatar," and I blame the movie's fans.

When even people who like James Cameron's latest opus admit the story is Disney's "Pocahontas" meets "Thundercats," no 3-D special effects — no matter how "game changing" — are enough to lure me to the theater.

If I want to watch a 3-D movie, I have a DVD of "The Stewardesses" at home. Personally, I think topless stewardesses are a better use of 3-D technology than a planet populated by blue-skinned cat people. But maybe that's just me.

No matter how much money "Avatar" makes or how many awards it wins, it's hard to take a film seriously when half the Internet calls it "Dances with Smurfs."

Still, I'm trying to look on the bright side. With people saying "Avatar" will change the way Hollywood movies are made just like "Star Wars" did, we just might be in for a few years of movies that really are risky and experimental.

After "Star Wars" revolutionized filmmaking in 1977, every studio in Hollywood tried to replicate George Lucas' success. Studio executives threw money at almost every sci-fi project they saw. If you were an aspiring filmmaker with a pitch that involved spaceships or robots or lasers, it was your moment.

Just think: In the wake of "Star Wars," a major Hollywood studio was willing to let David Lynch — the king of weird movies — direct a film version of Frank Herbert's classic science-fiction novel "Dune." No one in his right mind would have done that without visions of Death Star-sized profits dancing in his head.

Disney financed the sci-fi thriller "The Black Hole" and Steven Lisberger's visually groundbreaking "Tron."

Then, in 1984, Universal Studios released "The Last Starfighter," the first film to use computer-generated imagery to create semi-realistic space battles. And that same year, "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension" — a movie I'm still amazed was ever greenlit — hit theaters across the nation.

There was just one small problem: Most of those movies were either box-office disappointments or outright bombs. And when it became obvious that nobody was going to make the next "Star Wars" trilogy, the money dried up, unless your name was James Cameron. Then you got to make "Aliens" and the "Terminator" movies.

But most of those also-rans eventually gained respectable cult followings. That's why Disney is working on a remake of "The Black Hole" and has its "Tron" sequel, "Tron Legacy," set to debut in IMAX 3-D late this year.

I don't know what hopes Disney's executives have for "The Black Hole," but I imagine they're praying "Tron Legacy" is the next "Avatar" — minus the Thundersmurfs.

This will probably be a narrow window of opportunity. Right now, everyone wants to unleash the next "Avatar," complete with all of the fancy and expensive 3-D effects. Studios will gamble hundreds of millions of dollars to do it. But when the next "Avatar" fails to materialize, the money will disappear again.

So, who wants to hear the pitch for my groundbreaking 3-D movie, "Kung-Fu Biker Zombies vs. the Vampire Strippers from Hell in 3-D"?

I figure I've got all of Hollywood's latest fads covered.

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