If early reports from the East Coast are to be believed, this is not the happy Avatar Day that James Cameron and Fox wanted. Reading Twitter feeds is not quite an exact science, but people are saying that they attended screenings in theater that were half, or less, full.

In Atlanta former CHUD writer Russ Fischer says: Avatar maybe 1/2 full.

Aint It Cool’s Quint chimes in:
Wow, the Avatar theater in San Antonio is only a quarter full. Yikes…

JackGi on Twitter writes
I’m in MD and it was about half full, but the response from the crowd was pretty optimistic.

Florida’s DrumDog2112 tells me:
I went to the AVATAR preview. There were maybe 50 people in the theater.

Word from overseas is also worrying.
IanLoring says Half full in Bristol UK, was being reported as sold out. No fucking way.

Our message boards have conflicting overseas reports: message board user jmub says his Melbourne theater was empty, while cognizant (posting, I believe also from Australia, but I could be wrong. Definitely outside of the US) saw it with a packed crowd.

At first I thought that the preview might not be filling seats in the heartland, but that it would do well in New York in LA. But then Latino Review’s Kellvin Chavez weighed in from NYC:
D believe or not it’s half empty here at the 68st IMAX, but I think it’s because they added the 8 & 9pm shows.

Besides cognizant I have heard of other sold out shows; Sean_Oconnell says:
Packed house for 6 p.m. in Charlotte.

Let’s be really honest here – unless West Coast attendance (and the buzz from those shows) really outpaces everywhere else, this is either:

- bad for Fox and James Cameron or

- really bad for Fox and James Cameron.

This preview is meant to play to the faithful, who will in turn become a buzz machine to bring this picture to the masses. Let’s face facts: this movie needs to do very, very big business to turn a profit, and the reality is that there’s a whole generation of young moviegoers for whom James Cameron’s name means nothing. You and I and other film fans and people of a certain age certainly know Cameron, but his last theatrical film hit 12 years ago and it was a chick flick. Massive amounts of Avatar‘s potential audience have never seen a James Cameron film in theaters.

That’s why Avatar Day is a big deal. Fox needs the buzz that can only come from seeing the film on a big screen in 3D to really sell it. The studio counted on rapturous comments on Twitter and on blogs, but if nobody is going to see the footage, there’s no buzz. In fact the buzz becomes about how nobody saw the damn footage, which is poisonous buzz.

So what the hell happened? I think I have it narrowed it down to two possibilities:

1) Fox screwed the pooch. The ordering system for Avatar Day tickets was a disaster. Some people have speculated that this was on purpose – by ‘crashing’ the servers and ‘selling out’ of tickets, Fox gets extra buzz in the mainstream. But if it was on purpose it could have been a disastrous decision, as the difficulty in getting tickets may have kept some people from even bothering. That’s on top of the expected drop out rate from any free event – when people didn’t pay for tickets they’re more likely to just flake on them, as there’s no personal financial loss. That’s why you overbook events like this, as seats will always turn up empty.

If this is the reason why Avatar Day seems to be fizzling on the East Coast and in foreign territories, it’s bad. There was a bunch of money spent on creating buzz out of these screenings, but buzz won’t be created out of half-empty theaters. But there’s a much worse possibility…

2) People were turned off by the trailer. The reaction to yesterday’s trailer was perhaps best described as whelming. Some people were psyched, some were disappointed, but the vast majority seemed to be mostly unmoved one way or the other. This is terrible because Avatar needs to be the kind of movie that gets people really excited, as a 150 million gross is just not enough for this film. It needs to be huge, which means the excitement needs to be huge. I suspect that what might be the culprit here is the design of the Na’vi; personally I hate it, and I’ve seen many reactions that are less than favorable. That’s just a totally blind guess, though, based on little to nothing solid.

If this is what happened it’s just horrible for the film. Your first teaser trailer should be getting people excited, not making them skip the free 16 minute 3D preview you’re throwing. That’s the exact opposite reaction you’re looking for.

Or is the East Coast/international attendance an anomaly? Michael Moses informs me via Facebook that there’s a good sized line at the Universal CityWalk IMAX two hours before showtime, while AICN’s Capone says Chicago: 1st of 2 screenings 3/4 full, but second show will clearly be sold out based on line. There could be other major factors, including the fact that the original shows were at the work unfriendly times of 6 and 6:45, although Fox has claimed they all sold out. Could the later shows that were added actually play to full crowds?

Did you go to the Avatar Day screening? Did you skip it? If so, why? Drop me a line at devin at chud.com as I’d be very interested in hearing from you on this issue. Also feel free to weigh in on our message boards. What do you think half empty screenings mean for Avatar, if anything at all?