What Was The Buzz Like: Two-and-a-bit billion dollars later, it's easy to forget that when "Avatar" was first unveiled in San Diego, the buzz was less than deafening. The film had already been hyped to the skies, billed as a game-changer and something revolutionary, so when director James Cameron screened 25 minutes from the film in Hall H, there was an almost inevitable sense of anticlimax. Sure, there were some who got excited: First Showing raved "holy shit it was phenomenal, just amazing. It does indeed look like nothing you've ever seen, it is groundbreaking, it looks incredible." But Collider's reaction, saying "Nothing of what I saw redefined cinema or will change the way films are made forever," or CHUD's, saying "This is an evolutionary jump, not a revolutionary leap," were more typical among the geek press.
What Happened: If anything the release of the first trailer and Cameron's worldwide IMAX "Avatar Day" presentation in August (in which substantial footage was screened exclusively on IMAX screens) only continued the slightly underwhelming feeling about the movie in advance, which might have caused Fox to sweat a little. But they stayed on course, and even if the film didn't exactly change cinema, it picked up strong reviews, and made a little bit of money. Namely, $760 million in the U.S, and $2.782 billion worldwide, making it the top-grossing film in history.
Why? Well, given the weight of expectations placed on it, Cameron could have been joined on stage by Jesus and Jimi Hendrix and some would have come away disappointed. But premiering the footage at Comic-Con gave the faithful time to come round whilst letting Fox focus on marketing it to Joe Public. By touting Cameron, and the film's budget, it made it an event of the kind that hadn't been seen since, well, "Titanic." And for all the film's flaws, Cameron's storytelling chops were still rock-solid enough that the film felt satisfying enough for audiences to go back for more.
What Was The Buzz Like: Tepid. Sony made a big push for their glossy big-budget remake of Paul Verhoeven's Philip K. Dick adaptation. Despite filming having only just gotten underway, they brought an early, action-packed sequence to Hall H in 2011, and then returned in force in 2012, a few weeks before the opening. The first year, reaction was fairly cool, with Collider writing that, "It looks a lot like a video game... I'm not really feeling any thoughtful or inventive sci-fi from what we saw." But there was at least an understanding that it was some way off. While the more extensive footage shown the next year of the completed film had some supporters (Cinema Blend called it "fantastic"), it didn't seem to do much to turn views around.
What Happened: Something of a disaster. Opening a few weeks after Comic-Con, "Total Recall" was comprehensively outgrossed on both its opening weekend and in its total by its 1990 predecessor, taking only $25 million in its first three days, and $58 million in total. It fared better internationally, making it to just under $200 million worldwide, but given the film's whopping cost, it was still one of last year's biggest money-losers.
Why? Simply put: there was no reason for it to exist. Verhoeven's "Total Recall" might not have quite been a geek sacred cow, but its target audience certainly had their defenses up, and director Len Wiseman's film failed to add anything even vaguely interesting to the premise. Looking deeply generic, and with the never-quite-a-draw Colin Farrell carrying it on his shoulders, it's not so much a question of why the film flopped as why it was greenlit in the first place.
What Was The Buzz Like: Last year's Comic-Con wasn't a complete wash-out for Sony, with their underdog "Looper" winning over fans in a similar way that "District 9" had a few years earlier. The low-ish budget sci-fi was perhaps anticipated more by cinephiles, thanks to being from the brain of "Brick" director Rian Johnson, than by the geek crowd. But last year's Hall H presentation changed that as Johnson and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt charmed the crowd, and the studio showed a good chunk of footage that Cinema Blend called "insanely cool," and had Hollywood.com praising its "innovative action scenes."
What Happened: A nice little sleeper hit: "Looper" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to strong reviews in September, and rolled out at the end of that month. While not quite busting-blocks, it made a very healthy $66 million domestically after a $20 million and an impressive $110 million worldwide, for a total of $176 million, only just shy of the gross for "Total Recall," at a fraction of the cost.
Why? Domestically, the film came in somewhere between a "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and a "District 9," suggesting that there is something of a ceiling on this kind of low-budget original sci-fi fare, but it can be higher if the film is targeted to audiences other than the geek crowd (i.e. Johnson's profile, and its TIFF opening, signalled to audiences that it was smarter than, say, "Dredd"). Crucially, the real cash was made abroad, where the presence of megastar Bruce Willis helped bring in action-hungry audiences. And in a sign of what's becoming increasingly common practice, scenes scripted to be set in France were moved to China to help appeal to audiences there, with those moments extended in the film's Chinese release. Most importantly, it was made for a reasonable price. "Looper" would have been a flop if it had cost $120 million, but modest budget helped it turn a tidy profit.