James Cameron isn’t known for being cheap, at least when it comes to making movies.
“Titanic” was the most expensive movie ever made when it hit theaters in 1997, with a price tag of $200 million. That was later eclipsed by Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi epic “Avatar” and again with its sequel “The Way of Water.” His futuristic 1991 adventure “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” almost looks cheap with a $100 million budget (although it also briefly carried the “most expensive movie” tag).
But here’s the thing with Cameron: He reliably delivers at the box office, making those stratospheric budgets ultimately worth it for the studios backing his expensive efforts. If “Avatar”‘s following surpasses $2 billion in the next few weeks (and many experts believe it’s possible to surpass that coveted milestone), the filmmaker will be responsible for three of the six highest-grossing movies of all time. He is already the only director to have directed three films, each of which exceeded $1.5 billion worldwide. With those enviable statistics, Cameron isn’t taking a “no” from Hollywood.
But even Cameron himself admits that the cost of his blockbusters represents “the worst business case in movie history,” as he recently told GQ. With an estimated budget of $460 million and a break-even of about $1.5 billion, in the case of “The Way of Water,” his movies can be incredibly popular and yet not make profit. (Disney declined to comment on the film’s budget and break-even point.)
Luckily for Cameron and Disney, which owns the rights after acquiring 20th Century Fox in 2019, the long-delayed sequel has brought in $1.748 billion globally to rank as the seventh-highest-grossing opening ever. It looks to end its theatrical run with $1.825 billion to $2 billion, putting the tent pole firmly in the black. He’s already planning three more sequels, so the continued interest in the Na’vi from moviegoers is nothing short of a relief.
There’s additional good news as Cameron continues to explore Pandora’s lush landscapes. He suggests that the films have “economy of scale in the larger arc,” meaning that subsequent installments in the sprawling franchise may actually be less expensive to produce. Studio sources expect there could be a substantial drop in price, at least from a production standpoint, for subsequent sequels.
The costs, thus far, have been spent primarily on building the technology and infrastructure needed to recreate the fantastical planet and its natural resources. For the sequel, which was filmed simultaneously with the third chapter, Cameron built a massive tank (120 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep) in Manhattan Beach so he could film Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully, Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri And the water. Metkayina clan that he inhabits while exploring the depths of the ocean.
“If we develop something for ‘Avatar, a creature or an environment, that exists digitally. [The studio] you can get the benefit of not having to recreate that over time,” he told Smartless, a podcast hosted by actors Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes and Will Arnett. “That’s part of the argument for making three or four movies in a row.”
Even with pre-built elements, filmmaking involves many unknown factors. And with the “Avatar” movies, the years-long process of incorporating visual effects remains enormously expensive, especially given its lengthy length. For “The Way of Water,” additional COVID measures, on top of haulage costs to delay the theatrical release multiple times, added tens of millions to the already massive budget. There’s hope those expenses won’t affect the third installment, but it’s too soon to tell if the pandemic will continue to affect production.
Also, Cameron is an innovator. Let’s say part of the water, the setting for the sequel, for movies four and five, and instead come up with a way to film the actors while they’re on fire. (The director has already preempted that “Avatar 3” will feature the evil Na’vi fire, so it may not be that far off.) Developing those technological innovations could increase expenses tenfold. But hey, wouldn’t it be stunning to see it in 3D?