Not Even James Cameron and the Avatar Sequels Can Save 3D

Believe it or not, the Avatar sequels are still going ahead. It’s been eight years since James Cameron’s ground-breaking fantasy sci-fi epic revolutionized the use of VFX in Hollywood and stormed past Titanic to become the most successful film of all time. Yet now, the film casts a much smaller shadow over the industry. Despite its gargantuan success, bringing in a record breaking $2.788bn dollars at the box office and being the inescapable pop culture phenomenon of the year, the film is seldom remembered with such enthusiastic terms. The effects remain stellar but the story easily scrutinized, and people just don’t seem to talk about it as fondly as they do other blockbusters of comparable success, like the Harry Potter franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe that followed in its steps, or even Cameron’s other mega-hit, Titanic. It has minimal presence in fandom circles, it has its critical supporters but nothing like Cameron’s other films, and its earnest eco-friendly plot has become something of a mockery. Much of its innovative work has become old-hat in the ever-evolving industry thanks to the work of Weta Digital, who pioneered it all with Avatar. Aside from an admittedly impressive new theme park of the world of Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Avatar had been forgotten by the public at large.

Of course, it would be foolish to write off James Cameron, a man who has a habit of breaking the rules, lowering expectations, then making billions of dollars with his efforts. Remember, before it became the billion-dollar-hit of the ‘90s, Titanic was dismissed by the industry as an overblown vanity project, plagued by delays and technical problems. This is a director who, arguably more than anyone else in the industry of his stature, revels in technological experimentation, and the results by and large tend to be brilliant. Now, as the Avatar sequels move forward after years of delays, Cameron is hoping to further push the envelope with higher frame rates, brighter projection for 3D, and further evolution of an already progressive world of VFX.

You can’t fault his ambition, and plenty of smart people have bet against James Cameron only to lose big, but it’s hard to imagine a world where even Cameron can convince people to don the 3D glasses once again. Prior to his magnum opus, 3D was a cheap gimmick left for horror films, kids’ movies and theme park rides. The technology hadn’t caught up to the idea, and the end results proved inconsistent, headache inducing and no fun to watch. With Avatar, Cameron set a new standard that many films scrambled to follow. He made it feel special, a unique experience nothing else in cinemas was offering, and the film was specifically designed with the intention of being viewed in that way. Following on from that film’s success, every studio got into the 3D game, mostly with disappointing results. Between poor transfers and murky screens, audiences felt ripped off, a problem made sourer by increased ticket prices. Why bother paying for something when the experience is going to be diminished?

Last week, IMAX Entertainment CEO Greg Foster told The Hollywood Reporter that they would be cutting back on 3D screenings due to lack of audience demand. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, a record 68 3D films were released by major Hollywood studios last year, but there was an 8% drop in audience attendance. Mentioning the success of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, which screened exclusively in 2D, Foster said, "We’re looking forward to playing fewer 3D versions of films and more 2-D versions." When even the people who release 3D movies say the tide is turning, perhaps there is something worth listening to there.

Notable in Foster's interview is his insistence that IMAX will "listen to our filmmaking partners", before adding that directors who wish to release their films in 3D will be supported in their endeavors by IMAX. That bodes well for Cameron, not just as a director but as a producer. Coming next year, shot in 3D, is Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of the popular anime Alita: Battle Angel, which Cameron is producing.

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Key Release Dates
  • Avatar 2 (2021) release date: Dec 17, 2021
  • Avatar 3 (2023) release date: Dec 22, 2023
  • Avatar 4 (2025) release date: Dec 19, 2025
  • Avatar 5 (2027) release date: Dec 17, 2027
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