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Shyamalan's Last Airbender Not Trending Well for Profitability

Thompson on Hollywood By Anthony D'Alessandro | Thompson on Hollywood June 30, 2010 at 7:39AM

As Twilight: Eclipse shatters box office records, The Last Airbender is not looking like a strong holiday weekend contender. Anthony D'Alessandro does the numbers.
Thompson on Hollywood

As Twilight: Eclipse shatters box office records, The Last Airbender is not looking like a strong holiday weekend contender. Anthony D'Alessandro does the numbers.

Director M. Night Shyamalan is seriously in need of a hit.

Four years after his mystical thriller Lady in the Water drowned, the director continues to fling egg off his face after his public rift with the Walt Disney studio and his overall bluntness with the media.

In an effort to break from his thriller-with-a-twist formula, Shyamalan opted to adapt the Nickelodeon 2005 animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender into a live action franchise about a monk boy with the power to bring peace among three-warring tribes – Fire, Water and Earth.

The director has faced racial accusations from the blogosphere over his casting choices (apparently, darker skin individuals are the villains). Suspicions grew over The Last Airbender’s quality when Paramount decided to convert it into 3-D at the last minute. So far, Rotten Tomatoes reports twelve rotten reviews at 0%.

Analysts estimate that The Last Airbender will fly with a mid-$40 million five-day cume, starting with its Thursday bow through Monday. The question remains whether The Last Airbender or Toy Story 3 will be No. 2, but Paramount feels safe that the action epic will land in the top three.

But even if The Last Airbender meets projections, is that enough? The Last Airbender arrives with a cost of $280 million -- $130 million of that figure going toward marketing – and if the film fails to be a serious steamroller at the multiplex, don’t count on a sequel. According to the LAT The Last Airbender is more than twice as expensive as any of Shyamalan’s previous eight films.

In addition to young boys, Paramount distribution exec vp Don Harris says that the film will be a strong draw among African Americans and Latinos as well as families – and the market is large enough for another family film, especially since “everyone has already seen Toy Story 3," he says.

Higher 3-D admission prices should grease The Last Airbender’s turnstiles. In fact that could be its saving grace, coupled with an overseas market that favors epics (Prince of Persia tanked in the U.S. with $87 million but has reaped $226 million abroad). Not to mention, 3-D family films have shown strong legs to date with opening grosses repping 20-30% of their final domestic runs.

Shyamalan’s openings and domestic cumes have slid dramatically since 2002’s Signs ($60 million bow, $228 million final domestic B.O.) with his last two titles 2006’s Lady in the Water ($18 million bow, $42 million final) and 2008’s The Happening ($31 million bow, $65 million final) hitting lows on his resume.

This article is related to: Box Office, Studios, Genres, Action, Fantasy, Paramount/Vantage/Insurge/CBS

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.