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Disney to license rights to 'Avatar' for theme park attractions

Disney has reached a long-term, exclusive licensing agreement with 'Avatar' director James Cameron and his partners to develop theme park rides and attractions based on the 2009 hit.

September 21, 2011|By Dawn C. Chmielewski and Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • Director James Cameron has been brainstorming with the engineers who design theme park rides at Walt Disney Imagineering to capture the look and culture of Pandora, the verdant moon that is the setting for "Avatar."
Director James Cameron has been brainstorming with the engineers who design… (20th Century Fox )

Walt Disney Co. has struck a deal to bring flying banshees, giant blue aliens and other fanciful creatures from the blockbuster "Avatar" to its global theme parks, seeking to capitalize on the most successful film in Hollywood history.

Disney reached a long-term, exclusive licensing agreement with "Avatar" director James Cameron and his producing partner Jon Landau, as well as the film's financier and distributor, 20th Century Fox, to develop theme park rides and attractions based on the 2009 hit and its two planned sequels.

The first "Avatar"-inspired land is planned for Disney's Animal Kingdom, the newest of four theme parks at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Groundbreaking is planned for 2013, with an expected opening three years later. Executives estimate the cost of the project to be about $500 million. One of the executives, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were confidential, also said that "Avatar"-themed attractions are being considered for Disney's parks in Paris and Hong Kong.

While plans are still in the early stages, Cameron said he has been brainstorming with the engineers who design theme park rides at Walt Disney Imagineering to capture the look and culture of Pandora, the verdant moon that is the setting for "Avatar."

"Let your imagination run wild," Cameron said in an interview about what the "Avatar" attraction will entail. "That's what we're doing with Imagineering, looking at all the technologies that they have developed that they're champing at the bit to use to bring Pandora to life — the creatures … culture, a general sense of the future, the overall human relationship to nature, which fits thematically so well with the Animal Kingdom."

Disney has been aggressively investing in its theme parks over the last five years, including a $1-billion upgrade of Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim, whose centerpiece is a 12-acre Cars Land that re-creates the fictional town of Radiator Springs from the Pixar Animation Studios film "Cars."

In Orlando, the company is doubling the size of Fantasyland, at Disney's most popular park, the Magic Kingdom. It is creating three new themed areas at Hong Kong Disneyland, including Toy Story Land, even as it broke ground this spring on a $4.4-billion theme park and resort in Shanghai, its first in mainland China.

Nonetheless, Disney — which operates eight of the 10 most popular amusement parks in the world, according to the trade organization Themed Entertainment Assn. — couldn't pass up the opportunity to capitalize on the popularity of "Avatar." Cameron's 2009 release was the highest-grossing movie of all time, with worldwide ticket sales of nearly $2.8 billion. Sequels are planned for 2014 and 2015.

"There are so few franchises that come along in this day and age, when something of this triple-A level does come along, you've got to go after it," said Dennis Speigel, president of consulting firm International Theme Park Services Inc.

Speigel said the "Avatar" opportunity is especially significant because Disney lost out to rival Universal Studios' Island of Adventures park in Orlando in its pursuit of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, based on the bestselling books by J.K. Rowling and popular Warner Bros. films. Attendance at the park jumped 36% in the first quarter after the attraction opened. One person said that Disney is still in talks with Warner Bros. about the possibility of licensing "Harry Potter" for theme park attractions outside Florida, where Universal has exclusive rights.

Fox Filmed Entertainment Co-Chairman Jim Gianopulos said Disney was a natural choice as a licensing partner for "Avatar" because of its global reach and stature. He said the world Cameron envisioned is a natural fit for a theme-park experience.

"It lends itself very well not only to subsequent films but to be imagined and realized in the parks," Gianopulos said. "Yes, it's creative content. But what it really is is an immersive world. And that's what Disney intends to create."

Cameron's earlier "Terminator" movie franchise served as the basis for a 3-D attraction at three Universal Studios theme parks. Universal had preliminary discussions about creating an "Avatar" attraction for its parks, but never submitted a formal proposal, said a person with knowledge of the matter who requested anonymity because of the confidential nature of those discussions.

The new "Avatar" partnership came about quickly. Disney first approached Cameron this spring, and the deal was signed Saturday.

Cameron said that when Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger called 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."

A flying attraction, 3-D projections and creature designs that were cut from the original film are all concepts on the drawing board for the park, Cameron said. The creators of "Avatar" say they will be hands-on in developing the attraction, as Rowling was with the Potter attraction.

"We're gonna be intimately involved," Landau said. "This is a relationship that would be similar to Jim's and an art department on one of his movie's. He can speak to [the Imagineers] in their language. He can speak to the engineers on an engineering level. They'll have access to everything and anything."

Under terms of the agreement, Fox and Cameron will receive a licensing fee and a percentage of merchandise sales. Disney will not, however, share a portion of ticket proceeds.

dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

Times staff writer Brady MacDonald and Orlando Sentinel staff writer Jason Garcia contributed to this report.

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