Avatar's Economic Impact (from Arts Watch)

Posted by Stephanie Hanson, Jan 06, 2010 0 comments

Since everyone else is talking about Avatar, we may as well continue the conversation in Arts Watch and on ARTSblog.

I saw the movie in IMAX 3-D on New Year’s Day, along with what seemed like the entire Washington, DC metro area. 

We bought our tickets two days ahead of time, and arrived at the theater two hours early to get in line for our seats. When we arrived at the theater, flashing signs indicated that the movie was sold out for the next three days. It’s been a long time since I’ve ever seen this much hype around a movie. The hype, in my opinion, is well-deserved.

I woke up Monday morning to the news that after the weekend, Avatar had already exceeded over $1 billion in box office sales.  Talk about economic impact.

The movie was made using the digital 3-D Fusion Camera System, co-developed by Director James Cameron. All of this new filming technology got me wondering:  If we didn’t have art in schools, communities, or non-profit arts organizations, could this movie have been made?

If you’re one of those people who sits in a movie theater through the end of the credits (like me), then you’ll notice that Avatar has one of the largest crews you’ve ever seen.  Check it out here. This one movie employed hundreds of individuals.  Each of these individuals would have needed access to arts, culture, non-profit arts organizations, and arts education in order to successfully do their part in creating Avatar. 
It’s next to impossible to get the bios of individual crew, but it’s pretty easy to get the bios for director James Cameron and music composer James Horner

According to Wikipedia, Cameron was born in Ontario, Canada, to Shirley and Phillip Cameron (Shirley was an artist and nurse; Phillip an electrical engineer). Cameron’s undergraduate degree is in Philosophy from Fullerton College. He also studied physics and English, and is completely self taught in special effects and filming. Cameron spent his free time at the University of Southern California’s film archive, reading any thesis he could get his hands on that graduate students had written related to film technology. 

James Horner’s early years are more typical of a working artist. He started playing piano at age five, attended the Royal College of Music in London, received his bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Southern California, and eventually earned a masters degree and completed some doctoral work at the University of California, Los Angeles. Horner’s earliest scoring work was with the American Film Institute in the 1970s, and he also taught music theory at UCLA before turning his energy to film scoring full time. 

If you followed the career of any one of the employees working on Avatar, then I would bet you’d find stories of early encounters with the arts in their community, school, or non-profit organization. Some of the employees may have been self taught, like James Cameron.  However, behind many of the names in the credit list, we would probably find plenty of BFAs, BMAs, MFAs, and doctoral degrees. It’s very rare for someone to end up having the “Digital Paint & Roto Artist”, “Pattern Maker/Cutter”, or “Electronic Music Arranger” title without purposefully following an artist’s education and career path that will land on that job at some point. 

So let’s return to that $1 billion in box office sales. Without arts in the community, arts education in schools, or non-profit arts organizations, Avatar (or any other movie in Hollywood, Bollywood, or anywhere else) would never have been made. While impossible to calculate, can the case be made that non-profit arts organizations, local arts agencies, and arts education programs deserve some of the credit for that $1 billion economic impact? The optimist in me says yes. 

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