James Cameron isn’t known for being economical, at least when it comes to making movies.
“Titanic” was famously the most expensive film ever made when it sailed into theaters in 1997, with a $200 million price tag. That was later dwarfed by Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi epic “Avatar” and again with its sequel “The Way of Water.” His 1991 futuristic adventure “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” almost seems thrifty at a budget of $100 million (though it, too, briefly carried the “most expensive movie” tag).
But here’s the thing about Cameron: he reliably delivers at the box office, making those stratospheric budgets ultimately worthwhile for studios backing his pricey endeavors. If the “Avatar” follow-up crosses $2 billion in the coming weeks (and many insiders believe passing that coveted milestone is achievable), the filmmaker will be responsible for three of the six-highest grossing movies in history. Already, he’s the only director to ever direct three films that each surpassed $1.5 billion globally. With those enviable stats, Cameron isn’t hearing “no” from Hollywood.
But even Cameron himself admits 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 breakeven point of roughly $1.5 billion, in the case of “The Way of Water,” his films can be insanely popular and still not turn a profit. (Disney declined to comment on the film’s budget and breakeven point.)
Lucky for Cameron and Disney, which owns the rights after acquiring 20th Century Fox in 2019, the long-delayed sequel has grossed more than $1.73 billion globally and looks to end its theatrical run with $1.825 billion to $2 billion, officially placing the tentpole in the black. He’s already planning to make three more sequels, so moviegoer’s sustained interest in the Na’vi is nothing short of a relief.
There’s additional good news as Cameron continues to explore the lush landscapes of Pandora. He suggests the movies have “economy of scale over the greater arc,” meaning subsequent installments in the sprawling franchise may actually get less expensive to produce. Studio sources expect there could be a substantial drop in the price tag, at least from a production standpoint, for subsequent sequels.
Costs, so far, have been mostly dedicated to building the technology and infrastructure needed to recreate the fantastical planet and its natural resources. For the sequel, which was shot simultaneously with the third chapter, Cameron constructed an enormous tank — 120 feet long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep — in Manhattan Beach so he could film Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully, Zoe Saldaña’s Neytiri and the water-dwelling Metkayina clan as they explore the depths of the ocean.
“If we develop something for ‘Avatar — a creature or a setting — that exists digitally. [The studio] can reap 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 doing three or four films back-to-back.”
Even with pre-built elements, moviemaking comes with many unknown factors. And with “Avatar” films, the years-long process of incorporating visual effects is still hugely expensive, especially because of their lengthy runtimes. For “The Way of Water,” added COVID measures, as well as carrying costs to delay the theatrical release several times, tacked on tens of millions to the already-massive budget. There’s hope those expenses won’t affect the third installment, but it’s too early to tell whether the pandemic will continue to impact production.
Moreover, Cameron is an innovator. Let’s say he departs from water, the sequel’s setting, for films four and five, instead devising a way to shoot actors while they are on fire. (The director has already teased “Avatar 3” is going to introduce evil fire Na’vi, so it may not be that far off.) Developing those technological innovations could increase expenses tenfold. But hey, wouldn’t that be dazzling to watch in 3D?