James Cameron prepared to end 'Avatar' franchise with third movie if 'The Way of Water' sinks

James Cameron will return audiences to the world of Pandora next month in the long-awaited sequel to 2009's Avatar.

The big query on everyone's mind, however, is this: Does The Way of Water have the same box office punching power as its predecessor? Can this second installment in a planned five-movie franchise rival or surpass the nearly $3 billion in worldwide ticket sales that made Avatar the highest-grossing movie in cinematic history?

We won't know for certain until Dec. 16 rolls around, but if audiences aren't hungry for more of the Na'vi, then Cameron is ready to pivot at a moment's notice. Total Film recently caught up with the trailblazing filmmaker and pragmatist, who admitted that he's prepared to end the blockbuster series after three films if The Way of Water bombs financially.

"The market could be telling us we’re done in three months, or we might be semi-done, meaning: ‘OK, let’s complete the story within movie three, and not go on endlessly’, if it’s just not profitable," he said, going on to acknowledge just how much the world and theatrical industry have changed over the last 13 years. "It’s the one-two punch — the pandemic and streaming. Or, conversely, maybe we’ll remind people what going to the theater is all about. This film definitely does that. The question is: How many people give a s*** now?"

A still from James Cameron's AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER.
A still from James Cameron's AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER.

"There is clearly so much at stake and so much riding on the box office success of Avatar: The Way of Water, given that popular interest in the film — as measured by the revenues earned in theaters — will be the primary indicator as to the future financial viability of the cinematic world of Pandora and, therefore, will directly inform decisions to make further investment, both financial and creative, in the franchise," Paul Dergarabedian, Senior Media Analyst at Comscore, tells SYFY WIRE.

Given that Cameron said Avatar 3 was "95 percent complete" a little over two years ago, odds are very good that it's still on pace to grace theaters on Dec. 20, 2024. Disney — set to release the sequels via 20th Century Studios — needs an ironclad reason to green-light the remaining two projects, which would bring the studio's production costs on the science fiction property to a whopping $1 billion.

"These are hideously expensive movies," Cameron added, not mincing words about how much of a gamble he's taking with this decades-long endeavor. "It was a sketchy business case before the pandemic to make a movie that cost this much. At this point, we just have to play it out to see what happens. But what I know right now is: We’re delivering three hours of a pretty much insane experience."

"James Cameron is a realist as well as a visionary filmmaker and his understanding of the fiscal dynamics of the industry has prompted his willingness to course correct if the results for The Way of Water don’t justify the planned fourth and fifth installments," Dergarabedian concludes. "However, it would be unwise to bet against Cameron and the Avatar brand, given the importance of the first film, its popularity around the world, and the high level of anticipation for the long awaited follow-up."

Avatar: The Way of Water swoops onto the big screen Friday, Dec. 16.

Looking for more science fiction? Check out SYFY's Resident Alien, with both seasons streaming now on Peacock. The series returns for Season 3 next year.

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