Disney, James Cameron, and the big Avatar sequel gamble

James Cameron directing Avatar - The Way Of Water
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Four Avatar films are coming, with Avatar: The Way Of Water imminent – but nobody can still say for sure whether there’s the demand for them.

Never bet against James Cameron.

Across his last five feature films, even the one that supposedly flopped – The Abyss­ – turned a profit. Since then, he’s delivered four flat out smash hit films, two of which went on to become the biggest grossing movies of all time. Those happened to be the last two – Titanic and Avatar – a pair of movies that were written off in some parts of the press, and went on to become genuine sensations.


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But you know this. And you know that, rather than instantly capitalising on the success of making a near-$3bn blockbuster, we’ve had to wait 13 years for the sequel to his last film. In that time, the cinematic universe has prevailed, the studio that made Cameron’s last three films has ceased to exist, and the industry has dramatically, dramatically changed.

Cameron has too, apparently. In interviews, he seems a much calmer soul than his reputation once suggested. And whilst he’s not been averse to sequels in the past, his commitment now to making at least four more Avatar films is quite the undertaking for a man who’s made one feature to date in the 2000s.

Still, eyes are trained on Avatar: The Way Of Water, a film that was originally being made with Fox’s money, and now is being funded by Disney. What’s more, Avatar 3 isn’t far behind, that was filming side by side with The Way Of Water. That’s pretty much paid for as well. Yet as much as there’s intrigue here, there’s a real sense that nobody quite knows what’s going to happen here. There’s always an element of that to a movie’s release, granted, but you can say with some degree of certainty that a Marvel superhero film is going to attract a big audience.

But is the audience there for Avatar? Well, nobody can quite call it.

A few years ago, the general feeling seemed to be on the negative side. It’s not just that time has passed since the release of that first film, it’s also that it feels like it’s faded out of the cultural consciousness. I rarely get a sense of a groundswell of heavy affection for the film, and a desire to see where the story goes next. I certainly think it deserves better than the quick put-downs it sometimes gets, but the huge risk here remains: nobody is quite sure whether audiences want another Avatar film, yet alone another four of them, as is currently planned. The movie world has changed to the point where it feels oddly quaint to have a series of sequential sequels rather than a universe of production.

Avatar - The Way Of Water

But that’s a thing too, right? There’s redundancy built into a cinematic universe: if you don’t like one film, the next is likely to sufficiently vary. Nobody was put off Thor: Love And Thunder because they didn’t like Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness.

Here, Cameron is gambling that we’re taken in so much by the story of the next Avatar film that we’ll be keen for the rest of them. Avatar 2 doesn’t just hold the fate of the Disney Christmas shindig in its watery hands. It holds the fate of some more films as well. After all, wouldn’t Disney rather, really, be trying to come up with another way to remake Bambi or something?

The other elephant in this particular room is quite what helped rocket fuel the original Avatar theatrical gross in the first place. This was the moment when 3D reignited on the big screen, and Avatar’s returns were bolstered by the fact that the majority who went to see it paid the 3D premium. It was a novelty back then, and whilst I’d still suggest that the film would have done well without 3D, it certainly went nuclear with it. The affection for 3D has long since dissipated though, and this time, it feels like the movie won’t have that so much on its side (Cameron is releasing the film in 3D of course, but it’s hard to see audiences turning up in such numbers off the back of the tech’s novelty).

It feels like a franchise of uncertainty.

That said, an audit of sorts for audience interest in the films was conducted back in September. Inevitably conscious of how long it’s been since audiences were able to watch an Avatar movie in a cinema, Disney arranged a remastered re-release of the original film in the autumn. The results suggested promise, if not quite losing entirely the degree of uncertainty. Still, a global $30m opening weekend wasn’t shabby for a re-release.

Avatar - The Way Of Water

Disney had shut down far less risky projects than this. Appreciating its cinema strategy these days is go big or don’t bother, I think to something like the $100m big screen take on The Mouse Guard that director Wes Ball had nearly got to production. When Disney took over Fox, it was one of the many, many projects it junked. Lest we forget too, Disney shut down two entire filmmaking arms of Fox: Fox 2000, and Blue Sky Studios. It is not a studio shy of saying no to stuff.

Yet Avatar survived. In spite of James Cameron looking to make four films rather than one, and in spite of the $1bn investment that’d entail, Disney pressed ahead.

There are two reasons why, I’d suggest. Firstly, the biggest grossing movie in the world is still worth making a sequel to. Why not? If it makes a quarter of the money of the original – and Disney will be hoping for a lot more – then that’s nearly three quarters of a billion dollars. That feels – particularly in the current climate – a good return.

Secondly, there’s the Cameron factor. He’s the man who’s completely wrongfooted the naysayers twice so far, and I for one wouldn’t lay a bet against him doing it again. The very least the actual film is going to be is watchable (and, by early reports, long). Not since Piranha II has Cameron failed to put spectacle on screen, and I’m curious to see what he does next, if not exactly hitting refresh to get to a midnight screening on opening day.

I still wonder just how close Disney came to pulling the plug. Was there a moment when it at least tried to talk Cameron down to one sequel, and then moving onto the next? Maybe one day we’ll find out. But here we are: it pressed ahead when so many other projects stumbled into a corporate abyss, the early footage from Avatar: The Way Of Water suggests it’s got something that demands a big screen. Other films have long since given its December 16th release date a wide berth.

Yet still, there’s a little bit of doubt, and there’s clearly a break point here. Cameron has admitted as much. Look at the Fantastic Beasts saga, a franchise that’s clearly dead after three films even if nobody’s openly admitting it. In the case of Avatar, Cameron and Disney have structured the films so there’s a break between the first two sequels and the latter two.

It seems a logical safety feature built into the franchise, but still: even with a get out clause, there’s a commitment to at least two films, in a very difficult marketplace, with no real idea whether they’ll sink or swim. It might have been a gamble that Disney inherited, and it certainly wouldn’t have been as big a gamble if the whole Avatar juggernaut had lurched back into life a lot sooner. But here we are: an absolute anomaly in the Disney theatrical strategy, and perhaps James Cameron’s biggest test to date.

If he can pull this one off (again), he really might just be the king of the world (again)…

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