THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The True Story About the Academy Screening of Avatar

There have been two noteworthy articles gushing about the recent screening of Avatar at the Motion Picture Academy, proclaiming the reaction to the film so ecstatic that it was now easily the frontrunner for Best Picture.

Both articles were wrong. I can say this with certainty. I was at that screening. In fact, I was first in line.

To be clear, I'm not addressing The Importance of Winning an Oscar. It's about accuracy in journalism. Which is important. Always. Whatever the subject.

One article was by Pete Hammond in the Los Angeles Times - "Is 'Avatar' the new best picture front runner?" The other was in the online The Wrap, written by Steve Pond. "'Avatar' Wows 'Em at the Academy."

Both read like puff pieces written by studio publicists.

"And the reaction, I hear, was a triumph for Cameron's film," enthuses Pond. Hammond glows, "Avatar is suddenly the one to beat." Mind you, it appears that neither writer has actually seen the movie.

Hammond, in fact, bases his prediction on a single Academy voter "who often supplies us and other bloggers with instant reactions and analysis of member screenings." Demonstrating again the value of them unnamed "instant reactions."

More to the point, this one email from someone whose track record in analysis we have no way of knowing, is quoted as raving, "Avatar wins," later insisting, "Long applause for everything, except [James] Horner score, but who knows? Eight nominations, nine?" (Mr. Hammond himself goes even further, suggesting the movie could win 11 Oscars. A prediction made not having seen the movie. Or the other nominations. And based, seemingly, on one email.)

Mr. Pond praises that "Comments I've heard from those in attendance include 'huge response,' 'great applause at the end...'"

So, what was the reaction?

The actual reaction, I mean.

It was not "huge." There was no "long applause" for "everything." In fact, when the movie's title came up, while it did get applause like most Hollywood screenings, it lasted perhaps seven seconds and then quickly faded out. Writer/director James Cameron got appreciative applause that was perfectly nice and normal. And normal applause for a couple actors. Good (and highly deserved) applause for the special effects. And -- that was it. Solid, generally positive. But not "long," not "huge," and not "everything." Not even close.

More importantly, from the few people I and friends spoke to afterwards, the reaction was absolutely mixed.

Everyone was awed by the otherworldly-spectacular special effects. But for some, the script was a bit ordinary and ultimately somewhat disappointing. Others, though, while acknowledging the script weaknesses, overlooked them and adored the film.

What was particularly odd in their articles was that both reporters went to great lengths rhapsodizing how full the 1,012-seat theater was, as if that had some meaning about audience reaction. As if that had ANY meaning about audience reaction.

Here's the reality: this advance screening of Avatar was pretty much its first. And being 3-D there weren't going to be any "screener" DVDs mailed to Academy members. There also wouldn't be many other screenings, since the film requires a house that can play 3-D. Of course it was full.

And it was anticipated. But wanting to see a movie is not the same as liking it. Let alone raving about it.

(By the way, the first Academy screening for Up was just as full. For largely the same reasons.)

Yet for all the anticipation and limited screenings, there was no mad rush. My friend wanted to get there very early. I arrived first. Alone. When the doors finally opened, an hour ahead, about 60 people were in line. (Again, the theater seats 1,012.) With a half-hour to go, the room was about 40% empty -- there were even seats next to me, and directly in front of me. The theater filled with about 10-15 minutes to go.

The oddest hyperbole, however, was how Mr. Pond ends his gush: extolling as meaningful that Avatar bought the entire page of its listing in the Internet Movie Database (while eventually acknowledging that, in fact, it might not be anything new). Hint: all this means is that when a movie costs at least $300 million, the studio will promote the bejeepers out of it.

Make no mistake, Avatar has much to offer. Its technology is supremely remarkable. The story is slow for the first 90 minutes but overall okay. It will likely get a lot of Oscar nominations. Who knows, it might even win Best Picture. But if it does, it won't be because the reaction at this one screening had Motion Picture Academy members dancing in the aisles. It didn't. It was fine.

Avatar has done a great job promoting itself. It doesn't need the breathless help of Mr. Hammond and Mr. Pond inaccurately leading the way.