‘Avatar’s’ True Cost — and Consequences

Not only is “Avatar” not the most expensive movie ever made — its total budget and marketing costs fall somewhere below $400 million, according to Fox — but it looks well-poised to turn a profit.

For James Cameron, a man who seemingly doesn’t like to be less than No. 1 at anything, maybe it’s bad news that “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” “Spider-Man 3” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” each apparently cost more than his 3D interstellar adventure epic.

And despite claims that the production and marketing costs of “Avatar” have sailed north of half a billion dollars, Fox insists that the math is fuzzy.

The budget for “Avatar,” a Fox spokesperson bluntly told TheWrap this week, “is $237 million, with $150 million for promotion, end of story.”

Presuming Fox’s $387 million compounded figure is accurate, the film should have no problem getting into the black. A $400 million score at the worldwide box office — not a stretch by any means for a film of this caliber — will provide a revenue base that, when combined with home video sales, TV and other licensing, should add up to a profit.

(Fox declined to project what it expects “Avatar” to make in home-video sales.

Global home-video revenues for films of comparable budgets range from $314 million for “The Dark Knight” to $133 million for the critically panned “Spider-Man 3.”)

Speculation over the film’s costs and profitability started with a Nov. 8 story by the New York Times that claimed “when global marketing expenses are added, ‘Avatar’ may cost its various backers $500 million." The piece added up all production costs, New Zealand tax credits, Cameron’s efforts and marketing to put the “Titanic” director’s decade-long effort at close to a Hollywood heart stopping sum.

The Fox spokesperson told TheWrap that “while many elements of the Times’ story are accurate, the math doesn’t add up.”

And it doesn’t appear to — the paper cites “Avatar’s” budget at $230 million ($7 million less than Fox told TheWrap), with an additional $150 million in marketing and promotion.

The article, which also looks into partnerships with the likes of IMAX, Panasonic and James Cameron’s potential deferments, is about $120 million short of its own $500 million estimate. In an interview with Reuters in late November, Fox Filmed Entertainment chair Jim Gianopulos called the Times’ estimation “a ridiculous number."

Even if the true number soars into the realm of the ridiculous, all signs point to a successful box-office run for “Avatar.” And anyone who was within earshot of a Celine Dion song in 1997 knows what happened the last time a colossally expensive Cameron film — the then record-setting $200 million “Titanic” — unleashed an iceberg forest of claims that it would sink the partnering Paramount and Fox (it made an all-time record $1.8 billion worldwide).

Besides Cameron’s track record, the film appears to have a number of factors going for it, even if its reception is not commensurate with the all-out marketing blitz that began at Comic-Con – and hasn’t let up since.

With its December 18 release, “Avatar” is the only blockbuster slated in theaters during the run-up week to Christmas, when most students are on break (the musical “Nine” and romantic comedy “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” aren’t likely to cut deeply into that demographic, and “Sherlock Holmes” doesn’t come along until a week later).

It will play on an estimated 2,500 3D screens nationwide.