Avatar is the reigning box office champion, with the biggest worldwide take of all time. It ushered in a new era of 3D filmmaking and saw director James Cameron outdo the previous all-time champ — his own Titanic.
But for all its wondrous eye candy, Avatar is a movie remembered more for its technical achievements than the kind of affection that viewers still hold for the story and characters of Titanic. The plot broke no new ground, rehashing the old "soldier goes native, defends locals from his own people" tale. The twist is that it was set entirely on a hyper-realistic alien world, and the "natives" were tall, blue-skinned creatures like nothing viewers had ever seen before.
Still, no one was clamoring for a sequel. It was a tidy, self-contained story, it ended with a "happily ever after," and it didn't leave viewers with the sense that they were witnessing the dawn of a massive franchise. Yet that's exactly what's happening, with Cameron currently filming a full series of sequels back-to-back — a whopping four of them. That's a new Hollywood record for consecutively-filmed movie making.
Some have balked at the incredible price tag attached to the four-film production: a number in excess of $1 billion. That's right, one billion dollars. Needless to say, in the face of seemingly little hype or demand for even a single sequel, the expensive production has already begun.
Even so, despite this deck seemingly stacked against Cameron, these four movies will be totally worth the high price tag.
First and most obviously, there's Cameron's track record. There's no arguing with results, and this man delivers. Aside from the top two highest grossing movies ever, he also managed to best Ridley Scott's classic space horror with his Aliens sequel, made spies and terrorists funny (don't judge, it was pre-9/11) with True Lies, established Arnold Schwarzenegger as a movie star with The Terminator, and then redefined what a sequel could be with the now-classic Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
There's a timeless quality to his films, too. They may not be the headiest subject matter or feature the most nuanced of characters, but his movies hold up even decades after their releases. Terminator 2 is every bit as watchable today as it was back in 1991.
And his visuals are pristine. They're sharp, vibrant, and gorgeous to look at. Cameron frequently uses his own signature techniques, such as his striking nighttime cinematography that shows high contrasts between dark metallic hues and bright whites.
Second, Cameron's movies have always been expensive. The Abyss was one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time. Terminator 2 cost $100 million, which was unheard of. And Titanic was infamous for going way over budget and over schedule — exceeding $200 million — becoming the most costly film ever made, and it was far from traditional box office fare. Pundits understandably predicted doom and the end of Cameron's career, but the writer/director delivered the goods and won over critics, audiences by the droves, and Academy Award voters. Avatar kicked his budget up another notch, with a reported $237 million required to make the alien blockbuster.
The "over $1 billion" budget for the Avatar sequels is huge, no doubt. But it the math makes it about $250 million per film. That's not a huge jump from $237 million on the first film, especially if you factor in inflation. The fact that he's moving forward with four of them at once when there's arguably no demand for even one is more than bold, though.