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In the current economic climate, simply typing a sentence about a film that, including marketing costs, now tallies up to a reported half-a-billion dollars is surreal enough to put Dr. Evil on stun. That’s the unprecedented figure being batted around in a new NYT report about the financial realities that lie ahead for James Cameron‘s Avatar and 20th Century Fox. So, what exactly are the stakes and how much does the 3D sci-fi actioner and proclaimed cinematic game changer need to gross come December?

Well, what surprised me most about the report is the flow of calm responses from inside sources that are sprinkled throughout. While the graveyard of pricey tentpole flops that includes Waterworld, Heaven’s GateCuttthroat Island, and even this summer’s Terminator Salvation would seem to loom large, Avatar‘s costs are said to be well divided amongst many partners i.e. there’s not a single head that, if cut off via a flop, would slay an entire corporate beast…

At what point the various partners in “Avatar” would see profit from the film depends on what share of revenue each receives as the movie reaches theaters, then home video and other media around the world. If domestic ticket sales reach $250 million — a level broken in the last year by five films, including “Star Trek” and “The Hangover” — Fox and its allies would appear to be headed into the black.

And in this case, the corporate behemoth behind the film and behind 20th Century Fox is News Corp., and this year alone it’s said to have $30 billion in sales. And two outside companies, Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Media, are said to be picking up a beyond hefty 60 percent of the price tag. What’s more, Avatar has always seemed to me like a massive good-faith endeavor for James Cameron on behalf of Fox; his Titanic remains their highest grossing film worldwide (and, yeah, the highest grosser of any film ever). Titanic played a tidy role in the future success of News Corp. in a way that Avatar—if it failed to, say, gross $250 million domestic—could never reverse. That said, the disappointment that was this weekend’s $31 million opening for Disney’s A Christmas Carol, which cost a reported $200 million and received underwhelming reviews even in the 3D/tech department, has to raise an eyebrow.

At the end of the report, the initial and now infamous fanboy reception to the first trailer is barely mentioned. And while Avatar‘s buzz has experienced an upswing of late, it’s too early to gauge where the film’s event status sits in the zeitgeist of the general public. I know that personally, my expectations have cooled, but the more I see and hear from smart people, the less I’m worried that this is the Prequels all over again. There is also the general sentiment that nobody really wants this film to bomb for reasons ranging from Cameron loyalty to the sheer love of an original gamble in a land of remakes. Figure in the holidays, so many years of anticipation, and what would seem to be similar international interest, and worldwide grosses of $500 million don’t seem impossible (not that investors want the figure to stop there).

There is also the factor of DVD, a stream of revenue that continues to dry up without a solid alternative. Add in the yet-to-be-seen success of Avatar as a movie that holds up without the 3D magic at home, and its post-theatrical trajectory seems cloudy. Perhaps tellingly, a source at Fox tells the Times that the studio’s “secret weapon” this season is actually Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel. So, the real question is: Will the creator of The Terminator have his ass saved by David Cross’s CGI furballs from hell? In a year where “Chaos Reigns” and Andre Agassi admits to wearing an effing weave, anything can happen.

Feedback: Bet it all on blue? How much do you seeing Avatar grossing in the U.S. and beyond? If the film flops, what does that mean for 3D films?

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