Did Avatar Really Cost Half a Billion Dollars?

When a new James Cameron movie appears, Hollywood's industry watchers reach for their abacuses, first to tabulate the obscene amounts the film cost, and later, generally, to add up the obscene amounts the movie makes.

The fun usually starts with a good argument about how much the movie cost in the first place. Back before Titanic launched ten years ago, the entertainment world was scandalized by the notion that Cameron had spent $200 million to rebuild and sink the entire ship, then the highest budget for a movie.

Since Cameron broke that sound barrier, however, $200 million productions have become a dime a dozen and it takes a really major number, a number the sized of an ocean-liner and an alien mothership combined, to get Hollywood's attention.

Well, the New York Times kicked off the Cameron numbers game this weekend throwing into the ring a number big enough to still stop traffic and make executives gag on their Cobb salads. Half a billion is the figure NYT writer Michael Cieply put together, adding up the film's production, Cameron's personal participation and marketing.

A close reading of the piece reveals a lot of numbers, but taken together they don't quite add up to 500 of millions. A combination of the production budget ($230 million) and the marketing budget ($150) only gets you to $380, so you'd have to throw in a kitchen sink worth of other costs to add another $120 to that figure. To get near that price tag, you'd have to assume a much higher production cost, but our sources say that the final production did come in around the-seems-a-bargain-these-days $240 mark.

There can't be a Cameron numbers discussion, however, without a good old fashioned industry watchers numbers fight, however and immediately the web sprang into action. At the Hot Blog, veteran industry savant David Poland cried foul on the 500, saying Cieply's math fell at least a hundred million short:

He quotes the piece:

"When global marketing expenses are added, "Avatar" may cost its various backers $500 million."

Whoa!!! $270 million on... what... marketing?

"Fox's biggest investment in "Avatar" may be on the marketing side, where the company is planning to spend about $150 million around the world"

What? $230 million plus $150 million = $380 million. Where is the other $120 million?

There is no indication.

After taking further issue with the piece's profits projections, Poland concludes in a fit of pique, slinging the worst accusation you can make against a serious entertainment journalist, You're just like Nikki Finke!

I think it's great that after years of paying no attention, that the Paper of Record is now paying attention to one of the tools that studios use to reduce cash costs in production and marketing. But this $500 million thing is right out of Nikki Finke. If it's true, tell us how it adds up. And if you are throwing a number at the wall because some studio exec at another studio exclaimed, "The damn thing is going to cost Fox half a billion to put into theaters!" and your editor gave you to go ahead on the piece based on that, you are doing a disservice to everyone, from the studio to the filmmakers to the public.

Elsewhere however, the half-billion number appears to be sinking in. At the LA Times, Patrick Goldstein appears to accept the 500 completely.

While over at Chud.com Devin Faraci actively stands by the NYT numbers, but then goes on to bring us back to the larger point of the NYT piece, the idea that $500 million or $400 million it will be almost impossible for Avatar to turn a profit and that Fox studios has prepared for fact by selling off pieces of Avatar to investors around the globe, and that this fact will only increase the movement towards safe, explosion-heavy blockbusters that has already swallowed Hollywood.