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Doubt James Cameron at Your Own Risk

The director’s ‘Avatar’ sequel faces skepticism over its bloated budget and lack of a cultural footprint, but Cameron has demonstrated time and again that his movies are box office gold

Getty Images/20th Century Fox/TriStar Pictures/Ringer illustration

You don’t need to be a studio executive to know that green-lighting a sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time is a sound business decision, but as James Cameron told GQ, his long-awaited Avatar follow-up, The Way of Water, is “very fucking” expensive. So expensive, in fact, that Cameron claims The Way of Water would need to become one of the highest-grossing movies ever made just to break even. While Cameron might be somewhat overexaggerating how well the sequel has to perform at the box office, The Hollywood Reporter does put The Way of Water’s production budget in the $350 million to $400 million range, which is extremely rarefied air. (Only a handful of movies—two Avengers sequels and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides—have crossed the $350 million production threshold.)

All told, The Way of Water is saddled with massive expectations ahead of its theatrical release on Friday. How audiences respond to The Way of Water will determine the future of the franchise, or whether it even has one beyond what has already been finished in post-production on the sequels. Throw in the perception that Avatar has little to no cultural impact—a blockbuster reduced to a punchline by everyone from critics to the makers of BuzzFeed quizzes—and suddenly The Way of Water feels like it’s on very shaky ground. But while the odds appear to be stacked against The Way of Water, there is one undeniable force working in the movie’s favor: the man who created it, and who also happens to dress like half the members of my uncle’s motorcycle club.

When it comes to making bank in Hollywood, there are few, if any, filmmakers you’d hitch your wagon to before Cameron. Ever since he sold his Terminator script for one dollar to ensure he could direct the project, Cameron has been betting on himself—and repeatedly proving his doubters wrong. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger thought The Terminator was going to be “some shit movie” when he signed on; instead, it spawned a multibillion-dollar franchise and transformed the former bodybuilder into one of the greatest action stars of his era.

Such is the Cameron Effect: No matter how unconvincing his movies may look on paper, he always finds a way to deliver the goods. If anything, it’s a hallmark of his career. Consider what he did with his next film, Aliens. Having the self-confidence to direct a sequel to Ridley Scott’s all-timer is one thing, it’s another to have that movie go in a completely different direction from its predecessor. Abandoning the claustrophobic horror of Scott’s masterpiece to craft an action-packed blockbuster, Cameron rewrote the rules for what a sequel can be—all while making a film that is just as beloved as the original.

Cameron repeated that trick with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which saw Schwarzenegger return as a T-800 fighting on behalf of humanity against an eerie new adversary. More importantly, Judgment Day showed that the filmmaker was comfortable working on the biggest possible scale: at the time of release, it was the most expensive movie ever made. Critical adoration aside, Cameron justified bold investment for the sequel and then some, with Judgment Day becoming the third-highest-grossing film of all time.

What’s so impressive and inimitable about Cameron’s career trajectory is that, even after making history, he keeps upping the ante. To that end, Judgment Day’s standing as Hollywood’s priciest production was quickly surpassed by … Cameron’s next project, True Lies, the first movie with a budget that hit nine figures. It speaks to Cameron’s reputation within the industry that a studio would fork over that much money on an action-comedy about a spy (played by Schwarzenegger) struggling to juggle work with his failing marriage, which is hardly the kind of premise you’d associate with a record-breaking blockbuster. Naturally, True Lies didn’t deviate from Cameron’s pattern of box office bangers and was the third-highest-grossing movie of 1994.

Cameron’s commercial bona fides were already taking on a mythical quality when he moved on to Titanic, an epic love story set on the ill-fated ocean liner. Once again, Cameron broke his own record for the costliest movie in Hollywood history, though it wasn’t quite planned. The movie was delayed and severely over budget—Cameron even agreed to forfeit his share of the profits so he could make Titanic the way he envisioned—while the production itself was as doomed as the eponymous ship. Cameron’s infamous temper on set was a frequent source of tension, and at one point, the crew’s catering was spiked with PCP. (My pet theory is that someone on the production wanted to poison Cameron out of spite.) Amid all the expensive turmoil, the break-even point for Titanic was estimated to be north of $400 million, which, even by Cameron’s standards, was a very tall order.

Of course, Titanic isn’t remembered for having a production from hell. (That distinction belongs to Cameron’s other waterlogged tentpole, The Abyss.) If becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time wasn’t enough of a flex, Titanic also tied the record for the most Oscar wins by a single film with 11, including one for Best Picture. It might’ve been unbelievably cringe when Cameron shouted “I’m the king of the world!” on stage while accepting his Oscar for Best Director, but nobody could deny that he backed up his big talk when it mattered most.

By just about any metric, Cameron’s films aren’t just well-liked by audiences and critics: they’re reliable moneymakers. Of the 10 highest-grossing movies of all time, the only two that aren’t based on pre-existing IP come from Cameron (Titanic, Avatar). For those who prefer to analyze box office grosses after adjusting for inflation, Titanic and Avatar are still in the top three, surpassed only by Gone With the Wind. Cameron’s as surefire a bet as they come in this industry. Which brings us back to The Way of Water: If Cameron has demonstrated time and again that his movies are box office gold, why is there skepticism that his latest project will live up to the hype?

For starters, Cameron has released only two non-documentary movies in the past 25 years, and none for over a decade. (He was too busy exploring the Mariana Trench.) The theatrical landscape has also changed considerably over that time: When Avatar burst onto the scene in 2009, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still in its infancy. Thirteen years later, the MCU is at 30 movies and counting, benefitting from a seismic shift in the industry that elevated superheroes and other big-name IP over everything else—including visionary filmmakers. Blockbuster auteurs with original ideas like Cameron have become few and far between because major studios prefer the safety of an established cinematic universe. Even Steven Spielberg, the godfather of the modern tentpole, has seen his latest and most personal film struggle to make a dent at the box office despite overwhelmingly positive reviews.

Ironically, Cameron’s return to moviemaking is technically part of the very ecosystem that threatens directors like him: an extension of lucrative IP. But if the prevailing sentiment is that Avatar doesn’t have much of a cultural footprint, then The Way of Water will have to rely on Cameron’s track record as a generational crowd-pleaser to draw moviegoers in. With early box office projections putting The Way of Water on track for an opening weekend in the $150 million to $175 million range, the movie’s off to an encouraging start.

In any case, you don’t have to like Cameron as a person to acknowledge that he’s a uniquely successful filmmaker. (His maniacal behavior is so notorious that Amy Poehler, in one of the funniest moments from the 2013 Golden Globes, likened Kathryn Bigelow’s marriage to Cameron to Zero Dark Thirty’s torture sequences.) There are precious few directors who can work with the biggest budgets on the planet without compromising their artistic integrity or getting crushed by the weight of expectations, and Cameron might be the very best of them. The question is whether that’s still enough to stem the tide of concerning developments across the industry.

Between Hollywood’s narrow-minded superhero obsession, the rise of streaming services, and a moviegoing landscape that hasn’t fully recovered since the pandemic, there are many factors that could lead The Way of Water to underwhelm relative to its enormous price tag. But until one of his films actually bombs at the box office, Cameron has more than earned our trust. After all, if those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, then we shouldn’t doubt the enduring, titanic power of a James Cameron blockbuster. The King of the World isn’t ready to come down to earth just yet.