After nearly a decade in development, and after almost as many delays as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (or Amityville: The Beginning), Cameron, Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang and whoever else ends up coming are back for more Pandora adventures.
Deadline reports that shooting has begun in Manhattan Beach, where Cameron plans to shoot the films in succession. First, that in itself will be relatively unprecedented — shooting four movies back-to-back-to-back-back. Second, the four films will cost more than $1 billion total. If that seems like a lot of money, it both is and isn’t. It’s not the first franchise to spend $250 million on a sequel.
That’s more than the $650 million-$700 million that Peter Jackson and friends spent on the three Hobbit movies. By the way, they grossed $2.9 billion combined for Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc. James Cameron is a guy who breaks budgetary records out of habit, having helmed movies that were among the most expensive movies at that time five times in a row. The Abyss cost anywhere from $43m to $70m (depending on who you ask); T2 ($100m), True Lies ($120m) and Titanic ($200m) were the most expensive movies in history when they were made while Avatar ($240m) was merely the biggest-budgeted non-sequel/original. But in terms of relative budgets for comparative big-scale would-be blockbusters, four films on the scale of Avatar coming it at around $250m-a-pop is almost a bargain.
Avatar made $2.787 billion on a production budget of around $240m back in 2009-10, including $760m in North America alone. So even if you do the worst possible accounting for the film’s marketing and ticket-price split you can imagine, even presuming that Fox and friends needed four times their budget to break even (and really, it’s almost certainly closer to 2.5-3x the budget), that still leaves $1.7 billion in pure profit just from theatrical alone. No, I don’t know how much outright profit Avatar created for various investors, but I do know that writer/director James Cameron alone made $350 million. While you can argue that Avatar 2 won’t be quite as big of a hit as Avatar, there is no reason to assume that it won’t be a relative smash in three years’ time.
Assuming the first sequel delivers in terms of immersion, visuals and a unique cinematic experience that justifies at least one theatrical viewing for those around the world who liked the first one, you can fall pretty far from $2.8 billion and still be a massive hit on a $250 million+ production budget. If Avatar 2 falls like Alice Through the Looking Glass, we’re still looking at $800m worldwide. And that tumble is by far the worst for this kind of big-scale second installment coming off a successful first film. Even a fall like Angels and Demons gets Avatar 2 $1.8 billion worldwide, or more than Jurassic World. That’s assuming it doesn’t do the whole “less domestic/more overseas” thing, taking advantage of an expanded overseas marketplace and nostalgia for the first film.
So what we’re looking at is a four-film package costing around $1 billion where, not even taking into account the second, third and fourth sequels, the first sequel is (barring a fluke) a pretty safe bet to snag around $1.5b worldwide. Since 2019 will see the relative finale of a bunch of popular franchises (the new Star Wars trilogy, the first three-part MCU arc, Daniel Craig’s 007 run, etc.) with the likes of Fast and Furious nearing the end, Avatar will find itself once again the biggest game in town when it opens in December 2020. So while I won’t necessarily argue that the next four Avatar sequels are going to average $1.5b-$2b apiece worldwide, I’m pretty comfortable arguing that the four films will make enough combined in theatrical and post-theatrical to justify the alleged $1b price tag.
Even $1.5 billion for Avatar 2, $1b for Avatar 3, $750m for Avatar 4 and then $500m worldwide for Avatar 5 gives the four films a combined $3.25b, which is about triple that alleged combined budget. And if by some “Holy crap, he did it again!” miracle Avatar 2 becomes the third James Cameron movie in a row to be the biggest movie of all time? Well, however unlikely that may be, if the film becomes the first uber-blockbuster of a (hopefully) post-President Donald Trump era, then $1 billion for four Avatar sequels will seem like a steal for Fox and friends. Avatar 2 will open on Dec. 18, 2020; Avatar 3 opens on Dec. 17, 2021; Avatar 4 opens on Dec. 20, 2024; and Avatar 5 presumably wraps it up on Dec. 19, 2025. Let’s see if Avatar 2 can pull a Hobbit (or a Fifty Shades of Grey) and pay for itself on the first go-around.
Game on, Mr. Cameron
Scott Mendelson, Contributor