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Fox's 'Avatar Day' and a 3-D Revolution

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To fanboys across the country today is "Avatar Day": 20th Century Fox is giving a free, sneak peek at 16 minutes of James Cameron's much anticipated film. The movie doesn't come out until December 18, but needless to say, there's already incredible buzz.

In the first 90 seconds after tickets were made available online, 17,000 of the 68,000 tickets were snapped up before servers crashed. The two screenings, 6 pm and 6 30 pm at 129 Imax (IMAX) theaters, are entirely sold out.

"Avatar" cost an estimated $240 million to produce, plus tens of millions of dollars more to market. (Fox is covering the costs of the Imax screenings today, which can't be cheap). Cameron's last movie was record-breaking "Titanic," a dozen years ago, which is still the biggest movie of all time, grossing over $1.8 billion worldwide.

Cameron has the track record, also directing the Terminator franchise, "Alien" and "The Abyss," but it has been a while since Cameron has been in the public consciousness, good reason to introduce the film to moviegoers early.

20th Century Fox is also determined to attract a broad audience, what Hollywood calls "all four quadrants" (young, old, male, female). Die-hard fans, the types who go to ComiCon every year, know all about the movie, but this sneak preview is designed to generate the kind of buzz that will introduce the film's story line and characters to the rest of the world.

Most of all, Fox wants to make sure than mainstream moviegoing audiences, and yes, women, want to see the Sci-Fi film. Sci-Fi movies usually attract a heavily male audience but Cameron did, after all, make Titanic.

Cameron was hoping to release the film exclusively in 3-D, the lack of 3-D screens (just about 1200 in the US) means the film will also be on a couple thousand regular 2-D screens. High expectations for "Avatar" are pushing theater chains like Regal and Cinemark as well as privately-held AMC to invest in new digital 3-D systems. The roll-out of 3-D has been seriously held up by the credit crunch, we'll see if an easing there helps as well.

Some analysts estimate there could be as many as 2,000 3-D theaters by "Avatar's" release, though that's still just a small fraction of the overall screens in the US. 3-D screenings tend to be far more popular than the 2-D alternative, and theater owners can charge about $3 more per ticket, a win for the theaters as well as the studio.

If "Avatar" is in fact as big a hit as it seems it will be, we're sure to see many more 3-D live action films, and many more 3-D theaters.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

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  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.