Avatar is getting a lot of fanfare at the moment. As it passes the $700 Million mark, people can’t help but wonder if it will go on to beat The Dark Knight’s billion dollar box office take. However, as huge as Avatar is, I still maintain there was a much better film about aliens this year, District 9 (which, incidentally made it onto Chris’ Best Films of 2009 list).
With only an estimated $30 Million budget, District 9 made over $200 million worldwide. Sure, that doesn’t hold a candle to Avatar’s current numbers, but keep in mind James Cameron’s epic cost well over $250 Million. Probably more when you factor in marketing expenses. Given that, District 9 could be considered just as successful.
One might think that with such success District 9 director Neill Blomkamp would be eager to take on a film the likes of Avatar. His stance is quite the opposite, however. Speaking with the L.A. Times, Blomkamp expressed little to no interest in high budget filmmaking, citing reluctance to bend to studio demands:
“That’s exactly right and that’s precisely the reason I don’t want to do high-budget films. I’ve said no already to doing the Hollywood movie thing with big budgets. And that is the exact reason.”
The “exact reason” Blomkamp is speaking of is the recent trend of studios emulating other films instead embracing original content:
“We seem to be in a place now where filmmakers make films based on other films because that’s where the stimuli and influence comes from…And that’s my goal, really, is not to draw from other films in terms of the overall inspiration and stimuli. You can in terms of design and tone and stuff, certainly, but not in terms of the idea and the genesis of that idea.”
I have to say this is refreshing to hear. Since Avatar‘s debut I, along with some other critics, have stated the film’s story was grossly juvenile. It drew from a plethora of other movies, all of which did a better job telling the story Avatar tried to. However, this shortcoming, while widely recognized, is being given a pass simply because Avatar‘s special effects are so good.
The irony in all this is that the special effects in District 9 were equally as good but far more subtle. While Avatar created a vast new environment, the entire world of Pandora, District 9 worked with a real world, our world. Blomkamp seamlessly blended aliens into Johannesburg, South Africa and had them interact with real actors.
This nuanced approach was a far greater achievement than Cameron’s creation of an entire computer generated world. In short, Cameron is being credited for making us watch a glorified video game. Nothing I haven’t already seen in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (and that came out nine years ago).
Another interesting point to address between these two films is the monetary one. It’s easy to claim Avatar as the greater success given the high ticket sales. However, considering District 9′s shoe-string budget (by Hollywood standards) and hefty return on investment, I would challenge that Blomkamp’s film had greater gains.
Having just come out of a financial meltdown, studios have to optimize their cash flow moving forward. Sure, Avatar turned out to be a huge success but it also represented an enormous risk given the money involved. When weighing future projects a $30 Million loss, while not good, is easier to stomach then a $250 Million one. Studios can’t simply throw a vast amount of money at a project and hope they get it back these days.
Blomkamp himself said it best:
“As long as whoever put up the money for it got their money back and a little bit of profit that was good enough. It wasn’t like some completely capitalistic machine – it was ‘Get a return on your investment and let me be creative.’ That was the goal. I never want to be ruled by the size of the profit, that’s not how I approach it.”
For a time I thought District 9 (as well as Paranormal Activity) may have convinced Hollywood of this new business model (low budget, high return). With less money to work with more emphasis would have to be put on the story itself. Avatar’s release may have undermined all that. Too bad because it will galvanize the notion that as long as a movie looks pretty quality storytelling doesn’t matter.