Thursday, December 17, 2009

Will Avatar Spark More Originality?

Avatar, opening in the US tomorrow, has Hollywood holding its breath. The $350 million spectacle by writer/director James Cameron seems destined to one of only two possible fates: spectacular blockbuster or massive bomb. The middle road never seems open to Cameron, who famously drives Tinsel-town bean-counters bonkers with his uncompromising vision and gargantuan budgets. Sigourney Weaver calls him an “idealistic perfectionist”, which is a pretty good aspiration for all of us.

I haven't seen the film yet, but I wish it well for three reasons.

One, Peter Jackson's Weta Digital in New Zealand has been responsible for the special effects, which are said to take 3-D animation to a different plane. Another hit for Weta would be great for this awesome Wellington Lovemark – and for the city itself.

Second, I love James Cameron's gutsy approach. In an industry teeming with yes-men, corporate cronies and wannabes, Cameron stands apart as a maverick who rises and falls on the size of his talent, not his Rolodex. He put his philosophy this way: “If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success”.

Most importantly, I hope that Avatar succeeds because it represents something that has all but disappeared from mainstream film – a truly original idea. It is not recycled from a TV show or old movie, nor is it based on a book, play, musical or comic book. James Cameron is the sole writing credit, and the story is woven entirely from his imagination.

The rise of innovation in Hollywood (and Wellywood and Bollywood) has been startling, but it has not been matched by the rise of great originality – in fact, the opposite has happened. The graphs below show how the number of films made from an original idea – as opposed to sequels, book or musical adaptations, comic books or earlier films – has declined dramatically in the past decade. Instead, we are saturated by sequels….15 of the top 20 box office hits of the 2000s were sequels (and some of them were brilliant, but the point is valid).

The last decade will be remembered for awesome innovation we used to help tell stories on screen. Let’s hope that the ‘10s is known more for the creativity and originality we bring to storytelling itself.