James Cameron's new movie starts getting pre-release buzz -- ''Avatar'' footage has been lauded by fans, but will the $220 million gamble pay off for Fox?

By Nicole Sperling
Updated August 28, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

James Cameron won’t debut Avatar for nearly four months, but anticipation for his 3-D sci-fi extravaganza is already reaching fever pitch. Twentieth Century Fox, not surprisingly, is doing all it can to manage expectations, a must considering that the epic is Cameron’s first feature film since 1997’s Titanic won 11 Oscars and became the highest-grossing movie of all time. (Worldwide, it’s taken in $1.8 billion.) Still, Cameron insists, ”I don’t feel competitive with Titanic…. In all cultures in the world, everyone just happened to like that movie. But I can’t run my career as a filmmaker trying to reverse-engineer the combination to that lock.”

Perhaps not. But the studio has sunk an astonishing $220 million into Avatar — which requires audiences to empathize with a new, freaky-looking blue species — so they’re certainly hoping to replicate at least some of Titanic‘s success. And they’ll do whatever it takes to build buzz for the motion-capture vehicle starring Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation). To get the ball rolling, Fox premiered 25 minutes of footage to ravenous sci-fi fans at Comic-Con back in July. (Cameron, of course, has serious cred with the geek contingent thanks to Aliens and the Terminator franchise.) Then they released the teaser on Aug. 20, which broke records on Apple.com’s trailer page, logging 4 million views in just one day. And finally, on Aug. 21 the studio hosted ”Avatar Day,” which allowed fans to see 16 minutes of 3-D Avatar footage free in IMAX theaters. So far, reaction has been predominantly positive. While some naysayers called the dialogue cheesy, other audience members were blown away: ”My eyeballs were raped” was a common sentiment on Ain’t It Cool News. (In fanboy-speak, that’s a good thing.) ”It was awesome,” L.A. resident Brian Kirchoff told EW after one screening. ”I was like, ‘No, no, don’t stop the scene now!”’

But how will Fox maintain that level of excitement leading up to the Dec. 18 premiere? ”Lessons of Titanic teach you that buzz doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot either way,” Fox studio co-chief Tom Rothman says. ”At the end of the day, it’s the movie that matters.” He’s just happy that fans are interested this early. ”I’d be hard-pressed to think of another movie right now that’s opening in December that everyone is talking about.” — Additional reporting by Chris Nashawaty and John Young