Toward the end of Robert Redford‘s Quiz Show, Martin Scorsese shows up to play a powerful executive who snorts at the very real allegations of corruption leveled at him. At the end of the scene, he comments that audiences never really care about televised contests or quiz shows, that all they really wanted to do was watch the money being spent, teased, lost, or won.
It’s hard not to liken this observation to the movies — the most expensive movies tend to make the most money in the long run. The idea is even harder to ignore in the face of comments made by 21st Century Fox honcho Lachlan Murdoch to Variety in which he claimed that the upcoming Avatar sequels with constitute “the most expensive movies of all time.” Indeed, with a reported budget of $1 billion dollars, James Cameron‘s planned quartet of sequels will seemingly cost $250 million each, a number that would have really blown your hair back about five years ago.
In 2017, however, $250 billion is not out of bounds in any realistic way. And reliance on American audiences to cough up money to watch blue environmentalist aliens frolic once more is only remotely important in this gambit. The Fate of the Furious cost exactly $250 million before marketing and only crept up to $225 million at the domestic box office. Across the oceans, however, the movie brought in over a billion, making the entire venture worth the costs in the long run.
When Avatar 2 arrives in theaters on December 18th, 2020, it’s likely that natural curiosity and genuine fandom for the original film will drive healthy attendance both at home and abroad. Avatar remains the second most lucrative domestic film in history, toppled only by Star Wars: The Force Awakens and well over $100 million ahead of Cameron’s Titanic in third place. As long as reviews aren’t top-to-bottom toxic, and they almost certainly won’t be, Avatar 2 has a good chance of cleaning up but this isn’t just about the next movie. To truly make this billion dollars worth it, international audiences will have to show up for all four planned movies with equal vigor. That is a little more difficult to envision and if things really go south, it could create some inexplicably bad situations.
Still, this is James Cameron. The guy has proven himself at the box office enough for people to believe that he could pull this five-picture-deal off and he’s clearly not one to worry too much about the fact that plenty of people’s opinion of the original Avatar has soured a bit with time. He’s a big-screen filmmaker living in an age when most big-studio movies look like total trash on the big screen, largely due to a newfound reliance on directors who have worked largely in TV. By the time the Avatar sequels hit the theaters, the big studios will have put together a VOD option for their releases. If nothing else, Cameron’s forge with these Avatar sequels feels like a bid to make the theater experience genuinely exhilarating again. Here’s hoping he’s successful.