“You work on these films kind of in a bubble. You create this world around you with your artists, with your casts and so on,” Cameron says. “Then one day you realize, ‘Oh crap, we’re going to have to show this to people at some point.'”
For a long time, the “Avatar” sequel was the “Waiting for Godot” of blockbusters – more theoretical than real, with release dates that kept spiralling into the future. Meanwhile, an unending parade of pieces pondered the original’s curious place in entertainment: a box-office behemoth with little cultural footprint, a $3 billion ghost.
But the first look at Cameron’s “Avatar” sequel has thrown some cold water on that notion. The overwhelming reaction to the director’s latest three-hour opus? Never bet against James Cameron.
With a reported price tag of more than $350 million, a third “Avatar” film already wrapped and two more films planned after that, the Walt Disney Co. is placing a very big wager, indeed, on “The Way of Water.” Hollywood’s big question about “Avatar: The Way of Water” is whether the follow-up to the highest-grossing movie of all time can attract enough moviegoers to recoup its massive production and marketing costs. Director James Cameron admits he is not sure.
“Can we be profitable in a changed market? Or are we just the last dinosaur dying after the comet hit? I couldn’t tell you that right now,” Cameron told Reuters ahead of the movie’s debut on Friday.
The film, which opens in theatres, might be Cameron’s most ambitious undertaking yet — which is saying something for the 68-year-old filmmaker of “Titanic,” “The Terminator” and “Aliens.”
“I don’t want to do anything but big swings,” Cameron says.
We’ve been here before. After cost overruns and delays, “Titanic” was written off as a sure-to-bomb case study of Hollywood excess. Then it made $2.2 billion in ticket sales and won 11 Oscars. Not everyone was pre-sold on “Avatar,” either, which resuscitated 3-D after decades of dormancy.
“There was a guarded scepticism around this film,” he adds, “as there should always be with any new film.”
Studios split ticket sales with theatres, and Cameron told GQ magazine that “The Way of Water” will need to make $2 billion just to break even. Only four movies besides “Avatar,” including Cameron’s “Titanic,” have crossed that threshold.
The original “Avatar” enchanted audiences with pioneering 3D technology that brought to life the lush moon Pandora and its blue, 9-foot-tall Na’vi people. The 2009 movie remains the highest-grossing film in history with $2.9 billion in global ticket sales.
But the lengthy interlude before the second film prompted questions about whether moviegoers still remember the story and have any interest in seeing it continue.
“The common perception has been the first movie didn’t enshrine itself in pop culture,” said Boxoffice Pro chief analyst Shawn Robbins, because it did not feed fans a quick succession of sequels.
“The Way of Water,” which Cameron scripted with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, takes place a decade after the events of the first “Avatar.” Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the paralyzed Marine who donned an avatar on Pandora, is now fully enmeshed in the remote world of the Na’vi. He and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have three teenage children. When human soldiers come hunting for him, Jake moves his family to a reef clan of Na’vi who live harmoniously with the ocean.
The trials the family endures turn surprisingly wrenching in what’s already been called Cameron’s most emotional film. That may be partly because much of Cameron’s own experience as a father raising five children in New Zealand is woven into the film, as is his early life growing up in Ontario as the eldest son of an electrical engineer father.
“I remember what that was like for me. I’ve been Lo-ak,” says Cameron, referring to Jake and Neytiri’s middle son. “I’ve been the kid whose father doesn’t get him or see him. I don’t mean to disparage my dad. He was a great dad of that period in the sense of putting a roof over our heads and out there working hard, breadwinner. But he didn’t know what to do with an artist kid. He didn’t know what to do with a flamboyant artist whose head was out in interstellar space all the time.”
The director also said it was a “very legitimate concern” that audiences might no longer care about “Avatar.” But for him, those anxieties disappeared when the first “The Way of Water” trailer in May racked up 148 million views in 24 hours, he said.
“What does worry me is the market has contracted,” he said, “due to the kind of double punch of streaming and the pandemic.”
This year’s U.S. and Canadian box office receipts are running 34% below 2019 levels.
For “The Way of Water,” moviegoers will have the choice of 3D or the traditional 2D and 48-frames-per-second (double the standard), also means a new generation of technological advancement. While it’s unlikely to be as much a milestone as the first was visually, the blend of CGI and live action, above ground and underwater, makes for an even more strikingly detailed vistas.
“We’re able to deliver a much greater ability of photorealism than we ever did before,” says producer Jon Landau. “When we made the first movie, I would say to people, ‘We need it to be photographic.’ Now in this movie, we have so many Avatar, Na’vi characters in the live-action world and we have so many live-action characters in the Pandora world, we need to be photoreal. That’s a new standard we have to live up to.”
That’s most beautifully rendered in the film’s waters, where teeming science-fiction species of flora and fauna enrich an imagined ocean paradise. To Cameron, an avid deep-sea explorer whose passions for sea nearly outstrip his love of filmmaking, “The Way of the Water” is his grand ode to the ocean.
“It’s also a cri de coeur to people around the world to protect and be guardians of the oceans, to be guardians of nature, in general. That’s what these ‘Avatar’ movies are about,” Cameron says.
At the “Way of Water” premiere in London, Cameron was struck by how the audience looked different to him. It was a black-tie affair, unusual for him as a director, but that wasn’t only it.
“I looked out at that audience and everybody looked so beautiful and they put so much energy into just showing up. It struck me that maybe we’re back,” Cameron says. “Maybe cinema’s back. Maybe enough people out there do care about that dream of cinema.”
Boxoffice Pro chief analyst Shawn Robbins is optimistic about the success of the film. He said, it was because Cameron is known for “delivering on his big bets. He’s always had a good feel for what audiences are looking for.”
On opening weekend, Robbins predicts “The Way of Water” will rack up at least $150 million at domestic theatres. Two-thirds of its total box office grosses will likely come from outside the United States.
The final tally will hinge largely on China, Robbins said. While the original film was a hit with Chinese audience and the sequel is cleared to play there, many theatres in China remain closed under the government’s “zero-COVID” policy.