James Cameron had already worked on his Avatar sequel trilogy for close to seven years when he took the stage at the 2016 CinemaCon in Las Vegas, in order to announce that he now has four new Avatar movies in the pipeline - the first of which is tentatively set to arrive in December 2018. The news wasn't completely unexpected for those who've closely followed development on the Avatar sequels; it was Cameron's frequent collaborator James Horner who, just a couple of months before his death in 2015, revealed that the filmmaker had enough script and story material to fill four new Avatar movies.
We're a long ways away from 2010, when Cameron planned to shoot Avatar 2 & 3 back to back for a potential theatrical release in 2013 and 2014. Enough time has passed since Avatar grossed a record-breaking $2.79 billion in theaters worldwide and took home three Academy Awards (for its ground-breaking motion-capture effects, CGI visuals, and 3D filmmaking techniques) that the question has fairly been raised: have the Avatar sequels already missed the boat when it comes to their shot at replicating the box office success of Cameron's first installment in the sci-fi franchise?
It's certainly possible that this will prove to be the case once Avatar 2 finally reaches theaters in approximately two and a half years from the time of writing this. Nevertheless, Cameron and 20th Century Fox have already begun to take steps to evolve and "adjust" the Avatar franchise so as to better ensure that it can thrive, once it returns to the big screen after nearly a decade-long absence.
Release Date Tetris
The projected release date for Avatar 2 has changed multiple times since 2010, but Fox had its eye on a December 2017 launch day for most of last year - until, that is, Disney and Lucasfilm decided to shift Star Wars: Episode VIII to that same frame, as a direct response to the success that Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens enjoyed during its own December 2015 launch. It was reported shortly thereafter that Avatar 2 would not be competing with Episode VIII for attention from moviegoers over the 2017 winter holiday season, but even then there were hints that Cameron's plans for the franchise had grown even bigger and more ambitious than "just" a whole new Avatar movie sequel trilogy.
It also makes sense that Fox would chart the course for the Avatar sequels around Disney/Lucasfilm's Star Wars slate, seeing as Fox and Disney are currently partnering on theme park attractions that involve Avatar (more on that later) - and they may have struck a deal behind closed doors to avoid pitting the sci-fi juggernauts against one another directly.
In a time when more Hollywood studios have begun to release "event" films every few weeks throughout the entire year (as we've discussed on the Total Geekall podcast), Fox had to be all the more thoughtful about the dates that it scheduled for the Avatar sequels, starting with Avatar 2 in 2018. Even though Summer 2018 is still more than two years away, the months of May, June, and July 2018 are already largely filled with fresh installments in such lucrative franchises as The LEGO Movie, Jurassic Park/World, Transformers, and Toy Story (among others), in addition to major additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, and Fox's X-Men film universe alike. To put it further into perspective, 2018 is so crammed-full with big movies that the sequels Blade Runner 2 and (most likely) Deadpool 2 are going to be arriving in the traditional "dumping ground" of January.
There's no reason for Avatar 2 to try and duke it out with the other summer heavyweights in 2018 or settle on a date in August or November; where, in the latter case, it might have had to face off with either a new James Bond movie (seeing as 007 films have been released 3-4 years apart nowadays) and/or the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sequel (assuming the first Harry Potter spinoff does well enough to justify making a followup). Seeing as the summer-time and winter holiday season are still the most lucrative times of the year at the box office, Avatar 2 will (unsurprisingly) instead take a date in December 2018 - where there's an opening, since that year's addition to the Disney/Lucasfilm Star Wars universe, the young Han Solo movie, is arriving in May rather than at the end of the year. Again, since Fox and Disney are working together on Avatar-related projects at the moment, it's safe to assume that the Han Solo movie won't move back to December in the future either, like Episode VIII did.
Whereas multiple franchises are now getting fresh installments on an annual basis (in keeping with the shared universe production model that Marvel Studios popularized), Fox will not release Avatar 3 until two years after Avatar 2 hit theaters (in December 2020), while Avatar 4 likewise won't arrive until 2022. No doubt this is in part being done to accommodate the substantial amount of post-production visual effects work that will be required to bring the settings and alien inhabitants of Pandora properly to life in each film (each of which should have a quick turnaround between their respective productions),
That's clearly not the only reason for the two-year break between movies, seeing as 2019 and 2020 have already begun to fill up with dates claimed for tentpoles from Fox's rival studios. Star Wars: Episode IX, for example, is expected to hit theaters in December 2019, so Fox is returning the favor (so to speak) to Disney/Lucasfilm by not scheduling Avatar 3 during the same month - allowing the studio to go ahead and plant its flag in December 2020 instead, before Disney/Lucasfilm settles on a month that year for its planned third Star Wars stand-alone/spinoff film (a project currently in the very early stages of development). As for Avatar 4 and Avatar 5 in 2022 and beyond? Well, not even Marvel Studios has publicly revealed its plans that far ahead yet, so we'll get back to that in a couple years or so.
Expanding the (Shared) Universe
Back in 2010 when Cameron was still developing Avatar 2 and 3 as a pair of sequels that he planned on shooting back-to-back (as was mentioned earlier in this article), the implication was that these films would serve as both a two-part continuation of and conclusion to the first installment. Such an approach to franchise-building was not unprecedented either, having also been used years earlier on the Back to the Future and The Matrix sequels (both of which rounded out those respective blockbuster trilogies). Even Disney tentpoles Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and At World's End were, as far as their storylines are concerned, designed to complete the saga of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise, until the Mouse House decided to go ahead and make even more Pirates films thereafter (for obvious financially-motivated reasons).
That's technically still the case with the four Avatar sequels, as Cameron informed the crowd at the 2016 CinemaCon that the movies together form a "massive cinematic project" and a complete saga, in between the individual narratives that he's crafted in collaboration with his screenwriting team: Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), and Shane Salerno (Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, Savages). The Avatar franchise is nonetheless now being expanded in a fashion that resembles the model currently being used to develop other blockbuster cinematic universes, starting with the basic fact that there is even an "Avatar writing group" at all.
Paramount Pictures likewise put together a "Transformers writing group" to map out ten years' worth of spinoffs and sequels for that particularly lucrative (and effects-heavy) sci-fi action-driven property, which is not all that different from what Cameron and Fox are now doing with the Avatar film franchise. Similarly, Marvel Studios once had an in-house screenwriting program where writers tested ideas for potential additions to the MCU film slate, on their way to bigger projects; Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel co-writer Nicole Perlman got her start at Marvel with that program, as did Black Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole. Like Cameron with Avatar, Marvel Studios is particular about which writers are recruited to work on certain film projects.
Moreover, nearly every shared cinematic universe in development right now has a central creative figure(s) who serves as the main architect responsible for organizing the bigger picture. The Avatar franchise has Cameron, the MCU has Kevin Feige, Universal's rebooted Monster Movie Universe has Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan, the LEGO Movie franchise has Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and so forth. Obviously, these "architects" aren't all doing the exact same job (Feige, unlike the others, is a producer only), yet there's clearly a rough filmmaking template being used to create a shared universes nowadays - something implied by the fact that the term "shared universe" is even a common industry term now.
That term "shared universe" nowadays also encompasses a collection of installments across multiple platforms that are organized with regard to continuity, as is the case with something like the Star Wars franchise under Disney/Lucasfilm's watch. Likewise, over the forthcoming years the Avatar franchise will be getting not only four movie sequels but also a Dark Horse tie-in comic book series, additional Avatar novelizations, and even a major theme park attraction currently being built at Walt Disney World Resort (specifically, as part of the Disney's Animal Kingdom park) in Florida - all of which are being structured to fit within the world-building (read: narrative) framework established for the Avatar property by Cameron's movies. Whether you like it or not, the Avatar shared universe is very much on its way.
Will the Avatar sequels arrive too late to achieve major success? It's not wise to bet against James Cameron at this stage in the game, but there is also a precedent for shared universe plans that don't pan out the way the studio behind them are hoping for (see The Amazing Spider-Man). Similarly, Avatar isn't the first time that a multi-million dollar filmmaker-driven project has started out as a two-part movie event before growing into something far bigger and broader in its scope, as happened when Peter Jackson went from making a pair of Hobbit movies to developing a whole trilogy of them. The Hobbit, unlike The Amazing Spider-Man, worked out for its studio backers in the end, but it was quite an expensive investment nonetheless - and the same will no doubt be true for Avatar.
Fans will continue to debate whether Cameron devoting all his time and energy to making Avatar films is a good use of his talents over the years that lie ahead, but the odds remain in his favor of pulling this massive project off at the end of the day. It is his project. One just has to hope that all the time and effort being poured in crafting the stories and visuals for these upcoming Avatar movies makes them all the more impressive for it, seeing as we're all going to be talking about, writing about, and (at least in the case of film news writers/critics) actually watching these films for quite some time now.
Avatar 2 is expected to reach theaters in December 2018, followed by Avatar 3 in December 2020, Avatar 4 in December 2022, and Avatar 5 in December 2023.