James Cameron: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ will need to make $2 billion to break even

The first Avatar film came out in 2009. Back then, I really did think to myself, “who is this for?” But I was wrong – it found an audience and made 2.92 billion worldwide. Now, thirteen years later, Avatar fans are getting a sequel. It took this long for James Cameron to figure out the technology in making the sequel he wanted to make, and here we are. Avatar: The Way of Water will be out on December 16th. I won’t ask who it’s for, but I do wonder if the same audience will be there and whether the sequel will make the same kind of money. James Cameron is concerned too. He admitted that the sequel will have to make at least $2 billion to BREAK EVEN for the studio. Omg, WHY.

How expensive is “Avatar: The Way of Water”? Early reports have claimed the production budget alone was in the $250 million range, but director James Cameron isn’t willing to give a hard number just yet. The only answer Cameron would give about the sequel’s budget when asked by GQ magazine was the following: “Very f–king [expensive].”

Cameron apparently told Disney and 20th Century Studios executives that his sequel budget was so high it represented “the worst business case in movie history.” According to the director’s estimates, “you have to be the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history. That’s your threshold. That’s your break even.”

On the current chart of highest-grossing movies worldwide (unadjusted for inflation), Cameron’s original 2009 “Avatar” ranks at the top with $2.9 billion. Disney’s “Avengers: Endgame” is in second position with $2.7 million, while Cameron’s “Titanic” remains in the third slot with $2.1 billion. That means, according to Cameron, that if “Avatar: The Way of Water” wants to break even, it’ll need to overtake either “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” ($2.07 billion) or “Avengers: Infinity War” ($2.05 billion) in the fourth or fifth slots, respectively.

Only five movies have ever crossed the $2 billion mark worldwide, unadjusted for inflation. While the pandemic has affected moviegoing, films like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” ($1.9 billion) and “Top Gun: Maverick” ($1.4 billion) have managed to turn huge profits, so there’s hope for “The Way of Water.”

[From Variety]

I won’t speak to Avatar specifically – I never saw the 2009 film, nor am I planning to see the sequel – but I have no idea why studios continue to greenlight these huge “tentpole” films which require hundreds of millions of dollars worth of greenscreen work, CGI and/or underwater filming. Almost all of it just comes out looking like a really cheap cartoon anyway, so just spend the money to make an expensive cartoon, FFS. I’m not trying to upset the DCU or the MCU people, but (IMO) all of those movies overwhelmingly LOOK horrible. I get that Avatar will have pretty colors at least, and there’s a lot of world-building, etc. But there’s absolutely no f–king reason to spend $2 billion on one film (which should be a cartoon anyway).

Avatar posters courtesy of Disney/20th Century, photo courtesy of Cover Images.

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49 Responses to “James Cameron: ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ will need to make $2 billion to break even”

  1. Lucky Charm says:

    Well, if they didn’t feel the need to go all out just to be “extra” with these huge productions, and just make normal movies… Ticket prices could come down, people could afford to go to the movies more often, and take their families. There really is no reason to spend that kind of money making a movie. If the plot is good and the acting is decent, people will watch whether it cost $50,000 or $2,000,000,000 to make.

    • North of Boston says:

      ^ This!

      And sometimes, with the big spectacle movies, someone forgot or didn’t bother to have a coherent plot or characters, focusing more on the spectacle or marketing.

      I suspect this is one of those times.

      And that’s with me trying to set aside the white savior of natives/why is Sam Worthington at the center of this aspects of the original and Cameron’s self-importance, need to weigh in on things when nobody asked him

    • SophieJara says:

      Yes! The Shape of Water was made for less than $20 million and has underwater scenes.

    • Sue E Generis says:

      Just my opinion, but they’ve moved so far away from character and story and focus too much on fx. I really don’t enjoy movies anymore, with rare exceptions, and find myself dipping back into old school stuff from the 70s, 80s, 90s when characters were well written and there was lots of story.

    • lucy2 says:

      I don’t even mind a few tentpole films a year, if they’d keep making the smaller ones too. We need original stories, storytelling, and characters again.

      This to me sounds like a giant tax write off in the making, though they’ll probably end up using the tech on more stuff in the future.

  2. Esmerelda says:

    Could it be seen as an investment in tech development, somehow?
    Software is expensive to create, but it’s very cheap to edit and replicate, so once someone has done the work, it trickles down. (This is the reason why many superhero movies look sort of similar)

    I don’t think this movie is going to break even – there was a lot of excitement about 3D for the first Avatar, but post pandemic I’m not sure people will respond with the same enthusiasm.

  3. ML says:

    James Cameron is well known for being a rage monster who is very exacting and difficult to work with. No secret. And he last directed in 2009. THIS is the director that 20th Century felt deserved a 2-billion dollar budget in which the film has to break even?! Omg, I just can’t! There must be so many people who have difficulty getting their foot in the door who are more deserving of this money.

    • Melody Calder says:

      Regardless of his behavior, he has 2 of the 5 top grossing movies of all time… and they aren’t comic book movies or franchise. He has earned the right for studios to take a chance on his ideas.

    • H says:

      I love James Cameron movies. Notice I said MOVIES, not him. He is a rage monster and a control freak on set per many reports. In the past, he’s written some amazing female characters when no other male director/writer was (think Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor character in Terminator 1 & 2).

      However, I can’t stand Avatar and will not be going to see the sequel. I have a feeling Avatar 2 will flop just like The Abyss flopped (although I love that movie b/c again strong female lead). I think the days of Cameron are over, he and the studio just haven’t figured it out yet.

      • Anon says:

        The Abyss is my absolute favorite movie ever…. (The directors cut not the original theatrical release.)

  4. Nanea says:

    No one I know is planning to watch this, not in theaters or via streaming.

    Not even those who admitted to watching Pt.1.

    And that includes friends and acquaintances who work in the industry, be it production, casting…

  5. SarahCS says:

    I contributed to the $$$ of the first one, my then boyfriend wanted to see it and the 3D was novel, that’s what got me through the door. While the 3D was an experience, I found the film very meh and have no interest in another. At the time it was new and different, now I don’t see what the big pull is.

    Please spread that investment more widely and give us more/different films!

    • Sue E Generis says:

      They could have made 10 $200M movies. I don’t think this is going to do well.

    • Lara (the other) says:

      Saw the first one for the 3-D Effects. They were kind of cool, but the story was so bad.
      And 3-D somehow fizzled out again. I think the human brain is not really made for this kind of half emmerision, 3-D visuals without the movement and everything else.

  6. Carnivalbaby says:

    Saw the first one in cinema. And was so unimpressed. I don’t understand the hype.

  7. SJ (they/them) says:

    I saw the first Avatar in theatres five times. Five!

    I have grown as a person since then and I will not touch this nonsense with a ten foot pole. FFS.

  8. Emmi says:

    All I see is a burning pile of money. I’m not judging anyone who wanted a sequel, clearly the first one was more than popular but times have changed. I haven’t been to a theater in months. I think I’ve actually only seen two films in theater since the pandemic started. One documentary about the female politicians who changed the German political landscape (a niche film if there ever was one) and Avengers: Endgame. I wanted to watch Thor: Love and Thunder but frankly, it disappointed and I was glad I watched it at home.

    I think the days of these big blockbusters are over. I love a good period film but most of the time, a limited series is the better format. And there is so much material there, so many countries, cultures, times that I have never seen depicted. Someone flip through a history book and just get to work.

    • Kelly says:

      “Burning pile of money” is one way to put it. At this point I’m extremely exhausted by people whining about commercials, movies and TV, but jesus, the ammount of money that’s wasted on these things baffles me. Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on… a movie. Movies that most of the time are thoughtless popcorn entertainment and sometimes are offensively bad (like Suicide Squad).

      I’ve heard podcasts that are just 2 people talking and been more entertained by them than Marvel movies that cost nearly a billion dollars to make. I just can’t get over that. Imagine all the things you could do with that money at the cost of Avatar 2 never coming to existence. Even if the movie ends up being magnificent (doubtful), it’s a price I’d be more than willing to pay.

  9. Soni says:

    I saw the first one in the theaters and then again with my kids a few years ago. Was not impressed either time. Felt the story line had been done many times before and better (ie Dances with Wolves). But my husband is going to take the kids opening weekend bc they liked the first movie. I will be home enjoying quiet time with my dogs and will be loving it! Haha.

  10. ShazBot says:

    I saw the first one and remember thinking it was beautiful visually, and Pandora looked idyllic.

    Re-watched last year with my kids and spent the whole time saying “oh no”.
    Did not realize before just how obvious it is that it’s a white saviour story where he “out-natives the natives”.

    The trailer for the second is completely uninspiring too.

  11. Izzy says:

    If the studio takes a bath because they handed over such a ludicrous budget for a film that isn’t generating nearly as much excitement as they hoped, the studio deserves the financial hit. Sheer stupidity.

  12. Becks1 says:

    I saw the first one (not in theaters) mainly bc I had heard so many people talk about how beautiful it was, how depressed they were that Pandora is not a real place, etc. So I watched it. I thought the movie was dumb but it was beautiful.

    I don’t need to watch another dumb but beautiful movie and I don’t know how many other people need to either. I have a feeling this is not going to hit the 2 billion mark.

    I will say the Pandora land in Disney is gorgeous and very well done.

  13. Elsa says:

    I guess I am the audience. I thought the first one was amazing and I can’t wait to see this one.

  14. HeatherC says:

    I think the main problem this movie will have, as far as box office proceeds are concerned, is did anyone ask for this sequel?

    The first one came out in 2009. 13 years ago. This isn’t a Star Wars movie where you can release another chapter twenty years later and have a solid audience waiting for it. This was, at first, a stand alone feature that now has a sequel. Thirteen years is a long time. He’s banking on the original audience bringing their kids, a couple of times.

    • Jennifer says:

      First one was pretty but boring, which is why nobody cares about it. The only interesting personality got killed off (and is now being brought back as a teenager!). If he wants this to be a hit, it better have a good plot because “I wanna see pretty and 3-D on a BIG SCREEN” is a lot less popular now than it used to be *cough cough*

      Seriously nobody’s been clamoring for this. He ain’t GRRM.

  15. Louise177 says:

    For one movie or both sequels? Either way two billion is a ridiculous amount just to break even. I don’t know how the first Avatar made so much. It was ok but nothing I didn’t see the reason for the hype.

    • Kelly says:

      Literally everyone I know thinks the original Avatar was either overrated trash or a decent blockbuster movie but not much more than that. Everytime I talk about that film the general consensus is “how the hell is THIS the most succesful movie of all time?”.

      It seems like Avatar’s biggest legacy in pop culture was installing the idea movies need truck tons of CGI to be considered blockbusters. There’s no iconic scene, no iconic lines, no iconic characters people dress up as at comic cons.

  16. MsIam says:

    Well it will have to get there without my coins. I tried to watch the original Avatar on TV several times and I just didn’t get the hype and couldn’t finish it. Maybe it needed to be seen on the big screen to be appreciated but I don’t feel the need to see this sequel at all. Wakanda Forever was a must see for me so I’m good now.

  17. Kelly says:

    Well maybe this movie will end up being a huge success, but I don’t know. That crazy CGI artwork seemed impressive in 2009 (and not that much, even then), but it’s become the norm in the past decade. In the past decade Marvel released several movies set in space with crazy CGI artwork and Zoe Saldana playing an alien. As for the story… I don’t even remember the original that well. I always got the impression Avatar becoming so succesful was kinda a self-fulfilling prophecy, like there was a lot of hype about how succesful this movie was and that it’d replicate Titanic’s success in the ‘90s and a lot of people wanted to be a part of that. But is Avatar really that iconic in pop culture? Do people reference any scene in Avatar the way Titanic scenes are referenced? Everyone knows My Heart Will Go On as the song from Titanic, I don’t even remember what Avatar’s song was? I think this film will bomb. The stakes are too high and I literally don’t know a single person that’s excited for this. I didn’t even remember it’d come out until I read this article!

  18. Shai says:

    The only reason the first movie even made that much is because they had to re-release it, Infinity War had grossed higher and I don’t think he liked that.

  19. ariel says:

    So am i the only person who thought the first one was painfully overrated, boring, unimaginative garbage?

    • Deering24 says:

      Nope. I have never gotten through the first one, and still can’t figure why something so formula and pallid did so well.

  20. KASalvy says:

    It’s not that the movie itself cost 2Billion, it’s that the recoupment needs to be 2 billion. There’s a film tax incentive that when applied, the investor can receive up to three times the amount invested in a tax write off. $500 million dollar movie needs to make 1.5billion to break even. That’s only production and doesn’t include advertising etc. It’s an extremely powerful tax break when used correctly and can offset a studio financing a 500M film, getting a tax break of 1.5B

    It’s very under the radar unless you’re familiar with film tax law. We use it all the time for smaller indie movies investors. Very possible that’s what they did for this movie as well.

  21. FilmTurtle says:

    Remember that roughly half of a movie’s box office comes back to the studio/s. So the $2B figure would return approximately $1B back. Then factor in the $250-$300M budget (likely much higher), probably $100-$150M in marketing and advertising (normal for a movie of this size), and the gigantic take that Cameron and his company gets, and you can see why Cameron would say that. (Not that it makes good business sense.)

    Almost no movie earns back everything in one go; it usually takes years of successful TV and home entertainment and streaming sales to break even (box office enthusiast here). If “Avatar 2” earns “only” $1B at the box office, it will be profitable, just not a money-printing machine like the first one.

  22. TheOriginalMia says:

    My friend & I saw the trailer before Wakanda Forever. We looked at each other and said “nope” at the same time. I saw the 1st movie one time. That was more than enough. It was boring. I think I fell asleep during it. I felt bad because people were all saying how awesome it was and I’m like…damn, that was too freaking long.

  23. Prairiegirl says:

    Good luck dude. I still haven’t seen the first one and there’s nothing special about CGI-assisted movies that makes this one a ‘must see’ unless there’s been some massive improvement in the technology that he alone has access to.

    • [insert_catchy_name] says:

      I thought I was the only one who had never seen it!

      From what I gather it is just Pocahontas with aliens, so meh.

  24. Frippery says:

    They DID make Avatar as a cartoon and it was called Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest.

  25. Frippery says:

    Twas the great Mel Brooks who said “Merchandising, Merchandising, MERCHANDISING!”

    And much like Space Balls the Breakfast Cereal and Space Balls the Flame Thrower, Avatar isn’t going to just make money in solid profit at the box office. If that falls shorts (which ….yeah… 2 billion….), you’ve still got the profits from merchandise, streaming rentals, renewed interest in Pandora at Disney, new rides maybe at Pandora, the all the merchandise to go with THAT, Avatar tie-in novels and comic books, maybe a video game……..

    My point being that Avatar as a franchise has a ton of different avenues to use to make money, directly or indirectly. The film could more or less flop and they’ll still spin some profits from all the other related stuff.

    • Becks1 says:

      I’m always here for a good Spaceballs reference!

    • Noo says:

      Yes @frippery! That was my thinking this is for licensing and renewed interest in merch. New Avatar is primarily a platform to sell stuff and experiences outside the theatre.

      Also I find it so strange that box office totals are generally not reported in real (inflation adjusted) numbers. Makes no sense and I can’t think of any other industry that does economic reporting like this.

  26. Christine says:

    I saw the first one. Not in theaters, but when it was released on a streaming service. I couldn’t tell you the plot or one thing that happened in the movie to save my life.

  27. melis says:

    This was the first movie my grandpa brought me to. And i can’t wait to bring hem this time around to see the sequel, but would it pass the 2billion mark, i don’t know?
    But to a lot of people,the movie avatar has something nostalgic.

  28. kerry says:

    I will be first in line. Loved this when it first came out. Hope this one is just as outstanding!

  29. lucy2 says:

    Good luck with that, James. Especially if like the first one, it has a recycled and dull plot.

    Perhaps if the first one had actually had an original, interesting story and characters, people may have eagerly awaited this, but I have never heard anyone wanting sequels. And theater traffic is so down, not a chance this is profitable.

  30. February Pisces says:

    The first Avatar film didn’t really do it for me. It was ok but wasn’t memorable at all. I think people only went to see it because it was in 3D and because they thought they would get another “Titanic”. I can totally see why Titanic was so successful but not Avatar. James Cameron should have just left it at one film.

  31. Bill says:

    I think it will be very successful. Who doesn’t want a brief escape from the reality of 2022 without using pharmaceuticals.

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