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Avatar, B-Movies and The Road – It’s John Scalzi’s Mailbag, Thanksgiving Edition!

Avatar, B-Movies and The Road – It’s John Scalzi’s Mailbag, Thanksgiving Edition!” width=”560″/>

Dude, why are you here? It’s, like, Thanksgiving. You should be rupturing your intestines with various meats and mashed vegetables and pies and then collapsing onto the couch in a food coma. Heck, I’m feeling logy just thinking about it. And because I’m feeling logy rather than ambitious, that means — yes! — it’s time for another mailbag column!

First letter, from Tom:

You said a couple of weeks ago that you didn’t think a science fiction film would get on the Best Picture ballot this year. I think you may have forgotten about The Road. Don’t you think it has a chance?

Ooooh, good catch, Tom. In fact, I did forget about The Road, which is science fiction by way of the “post-apocalyptic” route, although I’m sure lots of people who don’t like/know science fiction would be willing to argue about whether it’s really scifi or not. Folks: It  totally is. Thus have I spoken.

As for its Oscar chances: Maybe. This is a movie where critical reception is going to mean a lot, and while the reviews so far have been generally favorable, they haven’t been uniformly so: A number of significant critics have been lukewarm or negative. If Academy members have a hard time coming up with ten nominees for Best Picture, it’s possible The Road might slip onto the ballot. But I think it’s more likely it’ll show up in other categories: Viggo Mortensen has a decent shot at Best Actor, I imagine Best Cinematography isn’t out of the question, and it might pop up in some technical categories as well.

That said, I think it probably has the best chance of any scifi oriented movie this year, although I’ll asterisk that by saying I haven’t seen Avatar yet. Which bring us to the next question, from Gail:

You listed four reasons why Avatar can’t fail but I think you’re underestimating the level of negative science fiction fan reaction out there for the film. It was even in your comment thread, where people were calling the film “Dancing With Smurfs.”

Fair point, Gail, but I’ll let you in on a secret: Fans matter, but they matter in a limited way; the amount of economic sway they ultimately have is often negligible. I like to say that a rabid fan base for a movie is worth about $10 million at the box office, that being the opening weekend box office of Serenity. Fans can add a bump to a movie that’s already trending toward success, or add another shovel of dirt to a flick that’s already doomed, but if the fans are trending opposite of the general moviegoing population, they’re not going to be able to save a movie, or doom it.

Now, in the case of Avatar, there are definitely people who have decided they already hate it, but I don’t see that as the monolithic response; lots of people can’t wait to see it. That conflicted fan word-of-mouth is going up against a massive positive promotional budget, and it’s going to take a lot more than scifi fans snarking about Smurfs to make a dent in the opening weekend box office.

One other small point to consider: Director James Cameron’s movie prior to Avatar had absolutely poisonous pre-release press and gossip. Did it affect the numbers? Well, you tell me: The movie was Titanic. Point is, if Avatar works, no one is going to care what people said about it before they saw it.

Last question, from Barb:

AMC has that section of their site where they show B-movies. Can you think of an actual recent science fiction B-movie in the theaters? I can’t.

The closest I can think of is probably Pandorum, which cost a modest amount to make ($40 million), was released by a small distributor (Overture Films), and disappeared largely without a trace ($10 domestic box office). But generally speaking, yeah, B-movies are pretty much out of the theatrical landscape; direct-to-video releases are their current equivalent, along with movies that debut on pay-per-view cable, like Mutant Chronicles (domestic theatrical gross: $6,800).

Which is to say that cheesetastic, hastily-made scifi flicks still exist, you just watch them in the privacy of your own home. Which is a bit of a shame, really. I like the idea of B-movies — the silly, vaguely crappy flick paired up with the movie you came to see — that are really better as a communal experience. But there’s too much money to be made programming the latest releases to show every half hour at the multiplex. That’s fine, but it’s not as much fun.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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