James Cameron's vision for the future of the Avatar franchise was originally two sequels (and maybe a prequel down the line), but that expanded to encompass an entire new movie trilogy over this past year. The plan is for shooting (including, but not restricted to, motion-capture photography) to get underway by October 2014 - two months before Cameron originally expected Avatar 2 to reach theaters, approximately one year after the first installment obliterated global box office records (for perspective).
The filmmaker adjusted his projected release date for Avatar 2 from 2014 to 2015 over a year ago (before the trilogy was announced). Back then, he was preparing to film (at least) part of the sequel in Wellington production studios in New Zealand - where Peter Jackson has been shooting The Hobbit trilogy over the last couple of years - not so long after Cameron had purchased a sizable portion of undeveloped real estate (read: farmland) in the country.
Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment, along with 20th Century Fox Studio and the New Zealand government, has officially confirmed that the entire new Avatar movie trilogy will be produced in the country, in a deal that is reportedly worth more than NZ$500 million ($412 million) and will ensure that "around 90 percent" of the live-action production crew on the trilogy is composed of New Zealanders.
Hiring will take place over the forthcoming months, as Cameron is currently overseeing the script writing for Avatar 2, 3 and 4 from his 2,500 acres of farmland around Lake Pounui, which is a "20-minute helicopter ride from the NZ capital of Wellington." (For a more thorough breakdown of the deal, read the article over at THR.)
Odds are that Cameron will end up being credited as the co-screenwriter on all three Avatar sequels, with his scripting collaborators including Josh Friedman (The Sarah Connor Chronicles) on Avatar 2, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) on Avatar 3 and Shane Salerno (Savages) on Avatar 4.
In an AP interview, Cameron promised that the Avatar sequels will chart new territories and native inhabitants of Pandora, but revealed that the films won't be heading off-planet (as he originally thought would be required):
"It's going to be a lot of new imagery and a lot of new environments and creatures across Pandora. We're blowing it out all over the place. At first I thought I was going to take it onto other worlds as well, in the same solar system, but it turned out not to be necessary. I mean the Pandora that we have imagined will be a fantasy land that is going to occupy people for decades to come, the way I see it."
Of course, most would agree that it's the stories that are the wild card factor here, not so much the expanded worldview of Pandora in these films - something that Cameron is all too aware of. Indeed, in said AP interview, he also indicated the scope of the narrative in the new Avatar trilogy will far outstrip that in the original film:
"[The first 'Avatar'] was very Jake-centric. His story seen through his eyes. We spread it around quite a bit more as we go forward. It's really the story of his family, the family that he creates on Pandora. His extended family. So think of it as a family saga like 'The Godfather.'"
Plot details on the new Avatar trilogy are tightly under lock and key right now, but we anticipate some variation on the 'settlers vs. natives in space' narrative of the first movie - not least of all, because Stephen Lang will reprise as Colonel Quaritch (through means that have yet to be explained), and Cameron has said that the memorable, if two-dimensional, military antagonist from Avatar will "evolve into really unexpected places" in the sequels.
Avatar 2 is slated to open in theaters by December 2016, followed by Avatar 3 in December 2017 and Avatar 4 in December 2018.