Movie "Avatar" has few fans among mining execs

NEW YORK Thu Mar 11, 2010 4:36pm EST

1 of 2. Jake (L), portrayed by Sam Worthington, and Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang (R) get a virtual look at a massive, gnarled and ancient willow tree that is the Na'vi epicenter and an extension of their lifeblood, in a scene from the film 'Avatar.

Credit: Reuters/WETA/Handout

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It's enough to make a mining executive grit his teeth or his kids to give him the silent treatment.

In a case of art imitating life -- with perhaps a little poetic license -- Oscar-winning movie "Avatar" paints big mining companies as the villains of the future.

But real-life executives are not entirely amused by their fictional colleagues being cast in evil roles in what is already the biggest-grossing Hollywood movie of all time.

"Let me put it this way, my kids saw the movie, and my kids know I'm a miner, and they didn't say anything to me," said Peter Kukielski, head of mining operations for ArcelorMittal (ISPA.AS) (MT.N), the world's largest steelmaker.

"They didn't say a thing, and they loved the movie. They saw it twice," he told the Reuters Global Mining and Steel Summit in New York this week.

"I gritted my teeth a few times over the manner the mining company was presented," said Charles Jeannes, chief executive of Canada's Goldcorp (G.TO). "I loved Avatar - once you get past the storyline, I loved the graphics."

The storyline of the James Cameron-directed movie, set in the year 2154, sees humans mining a mineral called unobtanium on the planet Pandora. Expansion of the mining colony threatens the existence of a tribe of Na'vi, a humanoid species. The film's title refers to the genetically engineered Na'vi and human hybrid bodies used by human characters to interact with the natives of Pandora.

MOVIE SETS BACK MINERS' EFFORTS

Dennis Wheeler, CEO of Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp (CDE.N) said he was keen to see it. "I think I will because a few of my friends who have seen it said it represents a real technological breakthrough."

When informed the film's mining company was portrayed as damaging the environment with no regard for local communities, Wheeler laughed: "Well, that's not futuristic!"

He noted that perception of the mining industry by many people, even if it was not the reality. "Coeur is a leader in environmental stewardship and mine safety. Those things that some people call the softer issues about mining, have clearly become more important -- social responsibility.

"I don't see anything wrong with them, I support them," said Wheeler, noting his company established a partnership with Alaskan native groups to provide workers for its Kensington gold mine and has done similar work in Bolivia and Mexico around its silver mines.

Gerald Grandey, CEO of uranium miner Cameco Corp (CCO.TO) appeared resigned to the fact mining companies get a bad reputation driven by environmentalists.

"When you get a movie like 'Avatar' -- I have seen it and actually enjoyed it -- I thought it was just unfortunate they defaulted to the easy conflict. It was too convenient to go back to the old stereotypes."

"Cameco is a premier example of going into a remote region - Saskatchewan, where there are 28 aboriginal communities who had never heard of mining...and now after 25 years, well over 50 percent of our employees are aboriginal.

"What we've done is...overcome the peer pressure, the stereotypes, the culture, the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol abuse, and one movie can put that back."

Asked if he would you have hired the Na'vi, Grandey replied: "If it had been Cameco, they would have been walk-in employees, we're looking for them!"

Richard Adkerson, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold's (FCX.N) president, CEO, took a measured approach.

"Well I don't consider...us a whipping boy and I don't consider the environmentalists to be those characters," he said.

"We have a big impact on the environment where we operate. And we spend huge resources to manage that impact and to try to do things in the right way," said Adkerson, who said he wanted to see Avatar in 3-D.

To Peter Marrone, Yamana Gold Inc's (YRI.TO) chairman and CEO, the film was just a film. "I haven't seen the movie, but I understand it is a love story between two blue creatures."

Balasubramanian Muthuraman, vice chairman of India's Tata Steel Ltd (TISC.BO), with iron ore and coal mines that feed its steel-making operations, put it all into perspective although he had no idea about the film.

"You have to realize one thing - in the U.S., the consumption of steel per person per year, is more than the consumption of food per person per year.

"It is the case in all developing countries. Mankind cannot live without steel and steel cannot be made without mining.

"What is important is that these operations are conducted in an environmentally friendly manner. If you stop mining, human beings cannot live in this world," Muthuraman said.

(Reporting by Steve James; Additional reporting by Frank Tang, Cameron French, Carole Vaporean, Matt Daily, Ernest Scheyder, Martin Howell; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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