Avatar gets an early start in Dubai

Long-awaited James Cameron movie Avatar gets an early screening at Dubai film festival.

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The long-awaited James Cameron science fiction epic will screen on December 15 at the Dubai International Film Festival, representing a coup for organisers; the movie will open two days later in most of the rest of the world, and three days later across the US. Matt Kwong reports One of the decade's most ambitious and most anticipated films, James Cameron's science-fiction epic Avatar, will close the Dubai International Film Festival, organisers said yesterday.

The film, which is reported to have cost US$237 million (Dh87m) and has been 15 years in the making, will screen on December 15, two days before its general release in the UAE. It stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang and Michelle Rodriguez. Although its world premiere will be on December 10 in London, the news of the early showing in Dubai was a thrill for local film buffs such as Faizan Rashid, the editor of the Dubai-based entertainment website wearethemovies.com.

"There is no such thing as a bad James Cameron film," said Mr Rashid, a 30-year-old Pakistani. Cameron directed the first two Terminator films and also directed the 1997 romantic drama Titanic, one of the most profitable motion pictures of all-time, with a record worldwide gross of more than US$1.8bn. "He's a phenomenally gifted filmmaker. He's not just cutting-edge and technologically polished, but the marketing machine over the past few weeks have been saying Avatar is going to change the way we see films, so I'm really pumped."

Linda Picard, the head of marketing for Empire International, which distributes films from Sony and Twentieth Century Fox to the Gulf region, expected the film about a human who fights to save an alien world under threat to be one of the biggest-grossing releases not only for the UAE, but for other Gulf markets as well. "Absolutely it is a game-changer," she said. "It's a first-of-its-kind experience, technologically groundbreaking. It's going to take moviemaking to the next level."

Mr Rashid said that the film was likely to be the biggest movie of 2009, at least in scope. Unlike the Twilight sequel New Moon, he said Avatar could snare a much larger demographic because it will combine action, romance and special effects that have been billed as unrivalled. "People are going to remember there were films before Avatar and films after Avatar. It's really going to be like a watershed on how films are made from this point onwards," he said.

"For this movie," said Mr Rashid, "[Cameron] had to wait a long time more than a decade for moviemaking technology to catch up to a point where it could produce the ideas already in his mind." Indeed, Cameron worked with Sony to come up with a new, smaller and much lighter 3D camera. Fans who have seen an extended, 25-minute preview have described the picture as having extraordinarily deep detail.

With films such as 1994's True Lies and the 1986 sequel Aliens, Cameron has a record of satisfying fans while winning over critics. Mr Rashid believes Avatar could threaten some box-office records. "This is the kind of movie where people will get excited and want to wait to watch on the big screen, and not just in regular cinemas, but on Imax," he said. "An Imax film costs about Dh50, so that's, what, 60 per cent more than a regular ticket?

"On our online forum, we have people from Saudi Arabia saying when they come down in January to the UAE, they're going straight to Imax for Avatar." To Vera Prudent, the supervisor of the ticketing office at Ibn Battuta Mall's Imax 300-plus-seat cinema, it was clear that fans were eager to see what Cameron has been labouring over for more than a decade. "Some people come from Saudi, sometimes from Al Ain, just to go in here to watch an Imax movie," she said. "We know already customers are eager to watch this movie."

Judging from the popularity of the 2007 3D motion-capture film Beowulf, in which the UAE's only Imax cinema was consistently packed, she added, Avatar should be a tremendous success. "Of course it will make a lot of money," she said. "I think there will be a full house for a number of days." Unfortunately for Mr Rashid, he will be missing the premiere at the Dubai film festival, as he will be in Switzerland on his honeymoon. "Just a couple of hours ago, I was looking for showtimes in Zurich," he said.

"The 17th of December seems to be the earliest worldwide release date, and then it comes out in the US on the 18th, so we're lucky enough here to get it at least a day in advance." He is already anticipating repeat viewings, along with Shariq Madani, another critic who writes for the website. "A James Cameron film you can expect to watch at least twice," Mr Madani, 30 and from India, said. "I'll probably go see it two or three times, but I might want to go by myself the first time so I can completely concentrate on the movie."

Avatar will also be available in 2D across the region, as well as in 2D digital and 3D in the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon, and in Imax in the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar. The Dubai International Film Festival runs from December 9 to 16. It will open with Nine, the latest effort by Rob Marshall, director of Chicago. Other films expected to gain attention at the festival are City of Life by Ali F Mustafa and Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year by the Indian director Ranbir Kapoor.