"Last Airbender" was first "Avatar"

Sun Jun 27, 2010 8:54pm EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - When a movie is based on a hit TV series, it typically uses the series' name as its title. In the case of "The Last Airbender," written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan and opening July 1, that was the plan.

Then fate stepped in and made it impossible.

The problem was that the Nickelodeon series that debuted in 2005 was called "Avatar: The Last Airbender."

"Certainly when the show debuted, no one anywhere had heard of the word avatar in connection with anything other than the Nickelodeon show," said Scott Aversano, one of the executive producers of the Nickelodeon Movies/Paramount feature.

But then along came James Cameron with an entirely different movie called "Avatar." Clearly, the "Airbender" team knew it would be a mistake to try to release two movies within a tight window that both featured the title "Avatar." So, in effect, the first "Avatar" became the "Last Airbender."

Aversano first the show while vacationing and approached Nickelodeon about turning it into a feature. But the series was so new that network executives weren't ready to start thinking about a big-screen version.

But then fate did some more intervening -- this time in a helpful way. About six months later, he was named head of the Nickelodeon Movies/MTV Films division at Paramount.

"Suddenly, I was the one who was deciding whether it would make a good movie. It was a much easier conversation with myself."

He recognized that the series' creators had established the "core idea of their central character, the Avatar, a figure who had a fully elaborated mythology that had some religious components, some philosophical components and some Kung Fu martial arts components to it."

The next step was finding the right filmmaker.

"We had a conversation with Night Shyamalan, who was himself a fan of the show through his daughters. He tells a story about searching for avatar costumes for his daughters for Halloween. This is the first time he's ever elected to write and direct something he didn't create whole cloth."

Although "Airbender's" roots are in a Nick series, Aversano noted, the channel's audience isn't really as young as people think, and the movie is targeted to a broader family audience.

"Before 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' everybody assumed a Disney movie meant it was playing to children under the age of 10. I think the youth audience has shifted and it's less about children and more about family viewing."

With that in mind, he added, "There's content in the movie that's meant to be emotional and expansive and heroic and I don't think childish. The movie will definitely deliver to a wider audience than what I think the expectation is."

Recalling his Nick days, Aversano observed, "We used to joke about 'drop off' movies where the parent shows up at the movie theater, drops their children off and waits outside so they don't have to watch the movie."

Such films could be profitable then. Today, it's a different story.

"The objective is to deliver a satisfying cinematic experience for the entire family audience," Aversano said.

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