Back to the Future

Summer 2010 has been a listless season at the cineplex. Are audiences ready for a second dose of Avatar?

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Moviegoers like these in China flocked to Avatar, but many 3-D films fared poorly.

So it's come to this: The movie summer has been so blah, Hollywood needs the Na'vi to ride to the rescue.

Not that business is awful. The domestic box office, which in 2009 topped $10 billion for the first time, could reach $11 billion this year. The season's biggest hit, Toy Story 3, which made more than $400 million in U.S. theaters and nearly $1 billion worldwide, was certainly a treat, and Inception painted a most provocative dreamscape. But magnitude and surprise — attributes that give audiences the feeling they're attending an event, not just showing up out of habit — were mostly lacking in summer 2010. That leads to audience shrinkage. "The box-office gross is up 1%," says Jeff Bock, an analyst for Exhibitor Relations, "but the number everyone at the studios will be talking about is the 4% drop in attendance."

Re-enter James Cameron and his blue heroes. Avatar, which opened in December, earned $2.7 billion worldwide and became the top-grossing film of all time. Now Cameron has tweaked and stretched his eco-epic by nine minutes and is sending the new version into about 750 theaters in the 3-D and Imax 3-D formats. His aim, aside from making a few more bucks, is to give the movie's fans a deeper, longer trip. "It's all stuff that takes place out in the Pandoran landscape with the Na'vi or the Avatars," Cameron told Tim Lammers of Internet Broadcasting, "and it's all computer-generated stuff. There's a new hunt scene and creatures that you haven't seen before, and there's new flying."

The same but somehow new! That's been Hollywood's mantra for success ever since it discovered movie stars. This summer, though, the offerings mostly seemed the same but old. Four of the season's five top-grossing movies were "further adventures of ... ": a sequel (Iron Man 2), two threequels (Toy Story 3, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) and a fourquel (Shrek Forever After). Christopher Nolan's Inception was made from his own script, but even that movie's originality is up for debate. (In a 2004 Scrooge McDuck comic, Huey, Dewey and Louie use a small machine to tap into Scrooge's dreams and find the combination to his vault. Probably just a coincidence.)

Moviewise, it's been kind of a bummer summer. Last year had breakout hits like District 9, The Hangover and the Quentin Tarantino fantasy Inglourious Basterds, and Sandra Bullock relocated her star mojo in The Proposal. And next summer, as Bock notes, is "like Hollywood's Greatest Hits: the final Harry Potter film, Green Lantern, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Transformers 3, Hangover 2, Cowboys vs. Aliens, J.J. Abrams' Super 8. It should be a great summer to be a moviegoer — and to run a studio." Here are the lessons from this summer that Hollywood can take to heart.

The Kids Are All Right
Of the season's top 10 grossers, five — Toy Story 3, Shrek Forever After, Despicable Me, The Karate Kid and The Last Airbender — are movies that children took their parents to. Hollywood's must-have demographic is down from 13-to-24 to about 8; the ideal rating du jour is down from PG-13 to PG. The Last Airbender, a live-action farrago inspired by an animated TV series, wasn't really a hit, costing more to produce ($150 million) than it has earned in U.S. theaters ($130 million). But it fared better domestically than producer Jerry Bruckheimer's very pricey pair of kid-friendly adventures, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ($90.4 million) and The Sorcerer's Apprentice ($60.6 million).

Stars Can Fade, Stars Can Shine
Adam Sandler, who flopped going serious with Funny People, returned to clown form with Grown Ups, which pleased no one but his vast fan base and has earned nearly $160 million, close to his all-time best, Big Daddy. Will Ferrell escaped from the prehistoric slapstick of Land of the Lost to join Mark Wahlberg in the cop-buddy comedy The Other Guys, which could reach $125 million. Thirteen years after he was the doomed Irishman on Cameron's Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio has shown he can draw crowds to gnarly intellectual thrillers: Inception ($262 million at home, $619.5 million worldwide) and, earlier this year, Shutter Island ($128 million in the U.S., $294.8 million total). Other veteran stars had uneven rides: Tom Cruise's Knight & Day and Russell Crowe's Robin Hood found most of their audience abroad, although Sylvester Stallone lured action fans with his over-the-hill-gang caper The Expendables. Julia Roberts, meanwhile, received a muted welcome back in Eat Pray Love. And with Sex and the City 2 a box-office bust, the only female star of a top-10 summer movie was Angelina Jolie, whose thriller Salt was aimed squarely at men.

What Ever Happened to 3-D?
The success of 3-D animated features like Monsters vs. Aliens showed that people would pay more for a 3-D kick. Avatar seemed to certify the format's future: from now on, every big film would be in 3-D. For now, though, audiences have tired of ponying up a $4 surcharge for a movie that isn't worth seeing in any D. Three recent 3-D films (Cats & Dogs: The Return of Kitty Galore, Step Up 3D and Piranha 3D) tanked, diminishing the format's ├ęclat and inevitability. Some directors remain skeptical of the process; Nolan has said he'll make his next Batman saga in plain old 2-D. But Hollywood is built on dreams, not just the Inception kind, and the December release TRON: Legacy may make 3-D the next big thing again. Cameron, who has said he plans to release a 3-D version of Titanic in 2012, envisions a day when the process will be as universally accepted as color. It may be years before the industry is sure whether 3-D will fly like a Pandoran banshee or crash into the iceberg of moviegoers' rejection.