A lot is riding on Avatar: The Way of Water, and not just the franchise’s future. The sci-fi epic must become the “third or fourth highest-grossing film in history” just to break-even, director James Cameron told GQ in a new profile. And while he stopped short of providing hard numbers when it comes to the budget of the long-in-development sequel, he did take the time to declare that it is “f–king expensive.”
The first Avatar, released in 2009, remains the highest-grossing film in history (unadjusted for inflation) with over $2.9 billion globally. It’s followed by Avengers: Endgame, which tapped out with $2.8 billion worldwide, and briefly took the top spot on the all-time list before being dethroned by Avatar again. The current third and fourth highest-grossing films ever are Cameron’s own Titanic ($2.2 billion) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($2 billion). That’s the “threshold” for The Way of Water.
The first Avatar film was made on a reported budget of $237 million, which, albeit massive, has been disputed. For instance, Cameron was given $10 million by Fox to deliver a proof-of-concept for the film’s ambitious visuals. Other reports at the time said that the budget was in the vicinity of $280 million. Combined with the marketing spend, The Wrap reported in 2009, Avatar cost around $400 million. The same report cited a studio spokesperson as bluntly saying that the budget for Avatar was “$237 million, with $150 million for promotion, end of story.”
All of this is to say that the $250 million number being floated for The Way of Water might well be inaccurate as well. For instance, Cameron shot both the second and third films simultaneously, meaning that he could have been working on a combined budget. He also told GQ that he has the first act of the fourth film in the can, implying that some amount was probably funneled in that direction, as well.
Cameron admitted to GQ that earlier, he used to be very “defensive” about being slotted as a filmmaker who exclusively works with massive budgets. “And now I’m like, if I can make a business case to spend a billion dollars on a movie, I will f–king do it. Do you want to know why? Because we don’t put it all on a pile and light it on fire. We give it to people,” he said.
The bit about spending a billion dollars on a movie might have been a throwaway comment, but going by Cameron’s own claim that The Way of Water needs to be the third or fourth-biggest film in history to break even, this might actually be true. The rule-of-thumb, for instance, is that a movie needs to make twice its production budget to start turning a profit theatrically. So, if the break-even point for The Way of Water is around $2 billion, that means that Cameron could’ve theoretically spent a billion dollars on the movie. That would certainly be incredible.
The first Avatar did not have a huge opening — it made less than $80 million in its opening weekend — but it was virtually unbeatable for months. It’ll be fascinating to observe how The Way of Water performs in a massively altered theatrical landscape. The film debuts on December 16. You can watch the latest trailer here, book your tickets, and stay tuned to Collider for more updates.