EXCLUSIVE: When Avengers: Endgame surpassed Avatar to claim the title of the highest-grossing film in history, it ended one of the most impressive reigns in the annals of screen entertainment: James Cameron, first with Titanic (1997) and then with Avatar (2009), had owned the top spot on the all-time chart for a staggering 7,817 consecutive days — just shy of 21 1/2 years.
Cameron was busy in New Zealand working on the sequels to Avatar in late July when Avengers: Endgame (Disney/Marvel Studios) finally eclipsed the original Avatar (Fox) and its $2.79 billion benchmark. Was the ultra-competitive Cameron dejected or sour when he heard the news? Far from it, he says, his first reaction was actually relief and optimism.
“It gives me a lot of hope,” Cameron told Deadline. “Avengers: Endgame is demonstrable proof that people will still go to movie theaters. The thing that scared me most about making Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 was that the market might have shifted so much that it simply was no longer possible to get people that excited about going and sitting in a dark room with a bunch of strangers to watch something.”
The marketplace was a far different one in October 2010 when the Avatar sequels were announced with target release dates in 2014 and 2015 and a story that would dive beneath the waves of Pandora’s alien oceans. Numerous delays led to a series of postponements and filming didn’t get underway until the second half of 2017. The production’s progress has been slow-going, too, with the challenges of extensive underwater shoots and exhaustive motion-capture work.
After Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox this year, the new Avatar timetable calls for Avatar 2 to land in theaters December 17, 2021, with Avatar 3 arriving on December 22, 2023. A fourth and a fifth Avatar film are scheduled for 2024 and 2027, respectively, but only if the next two light it up at the box office. That explains Cameron’s relief at seeing the theatrical vigor of Avengers: Endgame in an era when ticket sales have been worrisome.
“Will Avatar 2 and 3 be able to create that kind of success in the zeitgeist? Who knows. We’re trying. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t, but the point is, it’s still possible,” Cameron said. “I’m happy to see it, as opposed to an alternate scenario where, with the rapid availability, custom-designed experience that everybody can create for themselves with streaming services and all the different platforms, that [theatrical potential] might not have existed anymore.”
Amazingly, Cameron, who just celebrated his 65th birthday, has directed a grand total of just 10 films in his career (and that’s counting two aquatic-life documentaries, Ghosts of the Abyss in 2003 and Aliens of the Deep in 2005).
The Canadian filmmaker made his directorial debut in 1981 with Piranha II: The Spawning but scored his breakthrough with his second feature film, The Terminator, in 1984, which established the writer-director as force to be reckoned with in sci-fi and spectacle filmmaking. That was followed by Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), True Lies (1994), Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009).
Watching Avatar and Titanic slip into second and third place, respectively, on the all-time box-office list is something Cameron can shrug off — especially considering that all-time tally is of somewhat debatable merit due to the vagaries of inflation, soaring ticket prices, 3D price upgrades, etc. (In fact, with totals adjusted for inflation, Gone with the Wind is the all-time champ followed by Titanic, Avatar, and the first Star Wars.)
Instead, with his eye on the ticking clock of his own career, Cameron is happy to exchange one spot in the record books for a major reassurance that his future projects still have a chance to rival his past triumphs. In other words, it’s a different endgame that had Cameron concerned.
“I’m just glad it still exists because I’m all about the big screen,” Cameron said. “Not that I wouldn’t do something for streaming where you can get into the characters in a different way but what I love the most to do is to create that completely kind of subsuming experience where you turn off your phone and you engage. You as an audience member engage for two hours or two and a half hours, whatever it is. And that still exists!”