Disney Sees Green In Blue World Of Pandora

Walt Disney Co. has reached an agreement with "Avatar" director James Cameron, co-producer Jon Landau and 20th Century Fox, the movie's financier and distributor, "to bring flying banshees, giant blue aliens and other fanciful creatures from the blockbuster" movie to its theme parks, Dawn C. Chmielewski and Rebecca Keegan report in the Los Angeles Times this morning.

The first project will be a large spread intended to capture the look and culture of Pandora, the moon that is the setting for "Avatar," within Disney World's Animal Kingdom in Orlando. In Disneyspeak, the product-spinoff-franchise-to-be is a "land" -- the term executives use to describe a thematically grouped collection of rides, restaurants and other attractions, Ethan Smith reports in The Wall Street Journal.

Disney CEO Bob Iger says the new attractions will let park visitors "enter the 'Avatar' universe and explore it first hand." Cameron says that when Iger contacted him, "I thought he was a talking about an attraction, but what they have is a much bolder and bigger vision for how to bring 'Avatar' into their world."

"Avatar" is the highest-grossing movie of all time, with worldwide ticket sales approaching $2.8 billion. Plans to roll out other Avatar attractions elsewhere will partly depend on discussions with joint venture partners on parks outside the U.S., according to Alex Ben Block in The Hollywood Reporter.

Cameron is receiving consulting fee, not a percentage of ticket sales, but will also collect royalties on sales of merchandise, food and beverages. "That's the variable portion," he says. And the lucrative one, one guesses, unless our food, beverage and tchotchke consumption patterns suddenly nosedive.

In contrast, Steven Spielberg's deal with Universal entitles him to a fixed percentage of gate receipts in return for the company's theme park using characters and stories from film such as "Jurassic Park," Matthew Garrahan points out in Financial Times.

The relationship is a two-way street, of course. "While Jim is bringing audiences further into Pandora with the next two chapters in Avatar ... the theme park attraction will likewise bring a new dimension to the amazing universe he created," Jim Gianopulous, chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, says.

MousePlanet.com ("your resource for all things Disney") columnist Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix, blogging for USA Today, has an interesting take on the competitive situation: Disney is using blue aliens to counter boy wizards.

"The deal is surely a response to the success of Universal's Harry Potter land," Vincent-Phoenix writes, pointing out that it is the first time Disney has built an entire "land" based on a licensed property.

"It makes you wonder what "Star Wars" land would have looked like, had Disney pursued that license," she muses.

It's hard to say what Pandoraland, or whatever it's eventually called, will look like because development has just begun, according to Disney parks and resorts chairman Thomas Staggs. The first "rides" are not expected to be operational until 2017. By that time, two "Avatar" sequels will have passed through theaters, Blu-Rays, iPads and Media Delivery Devices Yet To Be Invented, no doubt populating our collective minds with ever-more-fantastical characters and landscapes to draw upon. (The sequels are scheduled for release at Christmas 2014 and Christmas 2015.)

Meanwhile, if you've got a young 'un worried about the job market, Imagineering seems to be a growth industry. Besides the $400 million to $500 million or so Disney is spending on the first Avatar project, it "has embarked on an aggressive global expansion" in recent years, write Chmielewski and Brady MacDonald in the LA Times' "Company Town" blog.

"It is expanding Hong Kong Disneyland with the addition of a "Toy Story" land, remaking Fantasyland in Orlando and building a 13-acre "Cars" Land attraction to Disney California Adventure in Anaheim. The company also is planning a new theme park in Shanghai, its first in mainland China," they report.

How exactly does one become an Imagineer? Mickey's oversized umbrella takes in everybody from machinists to civil engineers to lowly story and copy writers, according to The Unofficial Walt Disney Imagineering Site. Even Cameron is impressed by Imagineers' consistent ability to transcend the mundane - so much so that they are responsible for eight of the 10 most popular amusement parks in the world, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.

"I'm chomping at the bit to start work with Disney's legendary Imagineers to bring our Avatar universe to life," he says. "Our goal is to go beyond current boundaries of technical innovation and experiential storytelling, and give park goers the chance to see, hear, and touch the world of Avatar with an unprecedented sense of reality."

Hmmm...making the unreal seem real. Sounds like there may be some job openings for washed-up politicians there, too.

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