Now that Avatar is on track to be the second biggest film of all time, pundits are starting to wonder if there's more to its success than Art Nouveau pterodactyls in 3-D. Here are five explanations they've come up with.

It's the Great Recession, and we need escapism. This is the same argument we've been hearing since our economy roared off a cliff — now that we're in an economic ditch, people want uplifting happy escapist fare. Writes the Chicago Tribune's Greg Burns, "During the Great Depression, escapist-minded Americans flocked to the movies, and the current Great Recession is picking up on the trend." This is good news for superhero movies and space operas alike, but it doesn't explain why apocalyptic spectacles like 2012 have done so well as well. (My own theory is that apocalypses are escapist too, because they let us imagine surviving the worst possible thing, as well as starting over without all of this clutter. Plus maybe the investment bankers all die.)

It's the corporate sponsorship. Despite being a movie whose underlying villain was another one of James Cameron's greedy, nasty corporations, Avatar soared thanks to corporate schwag. Fox spent jillions of its own money promoting the film, but it also relied on corporate partners to spread the meme, says AdAge:

The studio teamed with Coke Zero and McDonald's for extensive promotions that gave fans access to the virtual augmented-reality world of Pandora. Consumers could download an AR application from and scan their Coke Zero can or 12-pack to take a virtual ride in the Samson helicopter featured in the film. McDonald's took a similar approach with its Happy Meal and Big Mac tie-ins, creating a virtual "Avatar" space called McWorld, where fans could interact with other aspects of the Pandora environment. Both marketers had large-scale media buys to promote the tie-ins, including general-market TV buys from Coke and multicultural TV, print and radio ads from McDonald's. LG and Panasonic pitched in for global tie-ins to cross-promote products with similar 3-D innovations, while Mattel partnered on the toy merchandising front.

McWorld. Sigh.

Movies are making more money generally. It's partly inflation, but even if you take that out of the equation, most of the top-grossing movies of all time are from the past decade, points out The Wrap's Michael Lee. Studios are getting better at convincing you to shell out to see a movie in the theater, and pay for add-ons like Imax or 3-D. And the big innovation in 2009 wasn't mo-cap or 3-D — it was the way Hollywood got better at selling films overseas. Even clunkers like Terminator Salvation did great in overseas box office.

Conservative rage? Avatar is a perfect snowball of Conservative-baiting, from the jabs at the Iraq war and the War on Terror to its heavy-handed environmentalist messages. But that hasn't hurt the film at all, notes the L.A. Times' Hero Complex blog. The Weekly Standard called it "anti-American" and "anti-human." But actually, I'm left wondering if all of the controversy over the film's politics didn't spur more people to go see it so they could find out what the fuss was about.

Fox kept the Internet buzzing. After the underwhelming first trailer came out and the Internet reacted with scorn, Fox reacted, deluging us with clips and other online content, says Den Of Geek. The resulting online overexposure drowned out the original backlash and kept people chattering about the Thanators and mountain banshees and so on. (Although Fox also chose to avoid giving websites the usual junket access and exclusive goodies before the film came out, perhaps trusting that sites would cover the film either way.)


What do you think? Was it any of these reasons? Lack of competition from Sherlock Holmes and the chipmunk squeakwel? Surcharges from 3-D tickets? James Cameron's macro-cephalic brilliance? Some other reason?