Merchandising to boost films

MORE TO COME: A character from James Cameron's blockbuster film Avatar.
MORE TO COME: A character from James Cameron's blockbuster film Avatar.

Director James Cameron's $1.15 billion trilogy of Wellington-filmed Avatar sequels will expand the film's fantasy empire over the next 20 years and turn the franchise into a multibillion-dollar merchandising machine.

The 3D science-fiction fantasy series will begin shooting simultaneously in the capital later this year as part of a "mega-blockbuster", which will include an international avalanche of merchandise such as a books, theme park rides and a globally touring Cirque du Soleil show.

The Pandoraverse, named after Avatar's central planet Pandora, is being intricately mapped as a continuous event with the films due for release each Christmas from 2016 to 2018.

The Wairarapa-based Hollywood heavyweight - who was recently appointed to the New Zealand's inaugural Screen Advisory Board - has hinted the sequels, set a decade after the first movie, will feature volcanoes as well as footage already shot from the seas around New Zealand.

The first Avatar movie, which had a lot of New Zealand input, was the highest-grossing film in history but critics, including Treasury, have said millions in taxpayer dollars being pumped into the sequels by the Government will be a spending turkey.

The movies' producers will get at least $125m in taxpayers' money in return for spending at least $500m making the films here.

New Zealand will host a red carpet premiere for at least one of the films and a "featurette" on the country would be included on DVDs and Blu Rays.

Cameron said the films - which at their peak could employ thousands of people, directly and indirectly - would not have been made here if the Government had not boosted the rebate.

But critics fear mega-blockbusters will become so expensive - and lucrative - that studios will lose interest in making smaller films.

Filming of the third Star Wars trilogy is now under way - originally just one movie was to be made but the first six films made more than $10b, and have spawned a vast industry of merchandise.

The Avatar project will take the concept to new levels. Disney is already building Pandora: The Land of Avatar in Florida as a rival to a Harry Potter theme park.

Cameron recently signed a deal with Cirque du Soleil to produce an arena show set on the lush green planet. It is due to be staged in 350 cities around the world.

Jon Landau, Cameron's production partner, said he expected the director's team to explore the Pandoraverse over the next 20 years. "We decided to build out the breadth of our world - whether or not it's in one of the films - now."

The Times and Fairfax NZ