20th Century Studios
The Disney film, due out next month, will need to be a massive hit at the box office just to break even due to its gigantic budget, the filmmaker said in a recent candid interview with GQ. And by massive, he estimates it will need to be among the top five highest-grossing films of all time to break even, let alone turn a profit. That feat would seem likely impossible if it were not Cameron, who has been atop that mountain before with Titanic (1997) and the original Avatar (2009).
With an estimated budget that has likely now ballooned greater than $250 million — Cameron would not tell GQ an exact number other than "Very f---ing [expensive]" — the film will need to crack $2 billion to be among the top five money-makers. Beyond Titanic at No. 3 and Avatar at No. 1, the other three top five highest-grossing films are Avengers: Endgame at No. 2, Star Wars: The Force Awakens at No. 4 and Avengers: Infinity War at No. 5.
The Oscar-winning director, 68, told Disney and 20th Century Studios executives exactly what they were getting into, he said, calling his massive undertaking "the worst business case in movie history."
Mark Fellman/Twentieth Century Fox
To turn a profit, Cameron said he told the execs, "You have to be the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history. That's your threshold. That's your break even."
Cameron has been working on his sequel since 2013. The film was due out years ago, but kept getting the release date pushed.
"I like difficult," the director told GQ. "I'm attracted by difficult. Difficult is a f---ing magnet for me. I go straight to difficult. And I think it probably goes back to this idea that there are lots of smart, really gifted, really talented filmmakers out there that just can't do the difficult stuff. So that gives me a tactical edge to do something nobody else has ever seen, because the really gifted people don't f---ing want to do it."
Cameron's films usually turn a monster profit, but he also works with monster budgets, including the Avatar films, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the aforementioned Titanic. And he said he took pride in his visions — which usually requires deep pockets.
"And I used to be really defensive about that because it was always the first thing anybody would mention," Cameron said. "And now I'm like, 'If I can make a business case to spend a billion dollars on a movie, I will f---ing 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."
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He continued, "If the studio agrees and thinks it's a good investment, as opposed to buying an oil lease off of the north of Scotland, which somebody would think was a good investment, why not do it?"
Avatar: The Way of Water arrives in theaters on Dec. 16.