James Cameron, director of blockbusters Titanic and Aliens, isn't known as Hollywood's most frugal man. But the budget of his latest film Avatar is still staggering. In the New York Times, Michael Cieply reports that investors will have spent an astronomical $500 million dollars to make and market the movie, an animated sci-fi tale about human soldiers occupying a lush planet inhabited by blue-skinned, cat-like aliens. While some dispute the figure, Cameron's film is undoubtedly among the costliest ever made.

So where did all the money go? With no budget-busting stars attached to the movie, the price tag mostly reflects the cost of advanced motion-capture technology. (Actors were filmed and then replaced with computer models, and the entire set is computer generated). Can Avatar possibly turn a profit? Movie buffs are split:

  • Expenses Exaggerated David Poland of Movie City News contests the $500 million figure reported by Cieply in The New York Times. Breaking the number down into its constituent parts for marketing and production, he says that Cieply conjures an extra $50-100 million out of thin air: "The thing about this piece is that 90% of what he is reporting is completely reasonable as news on this film and Fox. But this $500 million thing is like a tabloid shock headline and the NYT use of it will hang on this movie - because other editors and writers will repeat it like gospel, not matter how poorly reported - and it is terrible journalism." He argues the Times article misleads readers into thinking the expenses of Avatar are somehow an anomaly for the industry, when budgets for such profitable hits as Harry Potter and Transformers 2 weren't much less.
  • Actually, It's Pretty Close says Devin Faraci, lead writer for the blog Cinematic Happenings Under Development (CHUD). Interviewing anonymous industry contacts, he claims that the creation of the film cost $400 million, and the marketing budget will hit $100 million or more, equaling the sum reached in the Times piece. He is skeptical that any modern studio is up-front about production costs, especially factoring in reshoots, editing and effects. These costs are even more significant in the case of Avatar, because the film is so technologically dependent and yet fell notoriously behind schedule, thus requiring an additional infusion of funds to get it up to shape in time for release. He's also doubtful it can hit the black: "I don't know as much about the business side of things as Dave Poland, but I look at Avatar and see a movie that cannot possibly be expected to make its money back."
  • Foregone Flop At Collider, Matt Goldberg doesn't like that the press is already calling Cameron's film a beached whale: "Avatar is being set up to be disappointing no matter how good the film may be. Because folks now know that the film cost $500 million, they expect a $500 million film. So unless Avatar pays their mortgages, it can't succeed. Furthermore, negative reaction to the film will only be amplified by seven simple words: 'They paid five-hundred million dollars for that?'" He thinks that by focusing on the budget so much, his fellow writers are doing the film a disservice.
  • Plan C: China and Chipmunks Prior to the Times article, Cinematical's Peter Hall argued that Avatar had a shot to make its money back in China, especially since no other films are set to compete with the premiere of Avatar at the Chinese box office. He's amended this claim in retrospect, but still believes that "Avatar's release is going to see unprecedented box office in China," even if it doesn't pay for the cost of the movie itself. Continuing, he reminds readers of one nearly universally agreed upon fact: no matter what happens with Avatar's ticket-sales, the movie won't financially ruin parent studio 20th Century Fox for two main reasons. 1.) The studio has split the cost with a variety of other investors and 2.) It has a generous cushion provided by the near-certain popularity of the Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel hitting theaters on Christmas Day. As he puts it "A few CGI chipmunks should help buoy the studio's balance sheets until there is enough data to reflect if their gamble on what may be the most expensive movie ever made was brilliant or foolish."
  • Long-Term Potential ScreenRant blogger Kofi Outlaw thinks that while Avatar may flop, the film's innovative motion-capture technology will prove to be a game-changer. "Even if you saw the teaser trailer, and then the full extended trailer and are still of the opinion that Avatar - this alleged industry/technology/art form/experience changing event - will not live up to the hype, you at least better believe that the filmmaking seeds Cameron has sown with this project will bear him many fruits of profit down the line." He compares Avatar to Cameron's earlier hit, Terminator 2, reminding viewers how cinematic effects "entered a new CGI era" thanks to that film. He also notes that fellow Academy Award-winning director Ridley Scott has already been inspired to follow Cameron's lead after being awed by early footage of Avatar.