As part of their multi-billion dollar deal to buy various assets from 21st Century Fox, the Walt Disney Company became the proud owners of some much-coveted intellectual properties. Most of the column inches dedicated to the acquisition have focused on how the purchase would finally allow Disney to bring the X-Men and Deadpool titles under the umbrella of Marvel Studios, and the obvious issues of dealing with a potential media monopoly in the current entertainment and cultural landscape. What hasn’t garnered as many discussions has been the fate of the Avatar franchise.
James Cameron’s epic sci-fi fantasy tale holds a curious place in pop culture history. It remains, by a substantial margin, the most successful movie of all time at the box office, but it seems to hold little sway as a cultural or fandom icon. It doesn’t have the passionate fandom that, say, comic book movies do, and people have never seemed that excited about the prospect of sequels. Its presence on the pop culture landscape is pretty limited, and it’s often considered something of a joke – even among those who liked it. It’s curious to note how a film that made as much money as this did – an eye-watering $2.788bn – has left so little a mark on our geek consciousness. Perhaps that’s why its inclusion in the Disney acquisition received such muted coverage.
Yet despite being treated like a footnote, the Avatar franchise may end up being a hugely worthwhile investment for Disney. Avatar has four planned sequels, with an estimated overall cost of $1bn, easily making them some of the most expensive films ever made. Cameron has already talked at length about how he plans to use the best technology available – with the possibility of 3D without the glasses – to ensure the series remains at the cutting edge of the most advanced filmmaking on the planet. Having that kind of know-how on board at Disney can only benefit them, and open up major possibilities for films like the Marvel and Star Wars franchises.
On a purely creative level, Avatar has seemingly endless potential to advance CGI in cinema, and break new ground for the theatrical experience. Avatar was the kind of film you needed to see in the theater, and with box office revenue falling across America, Avatar could be a film that guarantees butts in seats. It’s also a potential franchise that Disney could expand from the foundations up: New characters, new creatures, possible prequels and sequels and spin-offs and much more.
Disney already had an investment in the success of Avatar before the Fox purchase. Over in Florida’s Animal Kingdom, you can visit the wonderful world of Pandora, based on the movie’s lush home planet. What many considered to be a flop in the making has turned into one of Disneyworld Resort’s biggest surprises, with hours-long queues for the attractions and rave reviews from tourists and theme park lovers alike. The park is doing well enough, 9 whole years after the film’s release, but imagine how jam-packed it would get during the lead-up to and release of the sequels. The Disney theme parks are huge money spinners and perfect opportunities for corporate synergy – why else open up lands dedicated to Star Wars, Marvel and Toy Story? Pandora’s bringing in the big bucks in Florida, but it has the potential to do even better in Disney’s most recent park, Disneyland Shanghai.
If there is any major reason as to why an Avatar acquisition is good for Disney, then look no further than the almighty forces of the Chinese box office. What was once a no-go area for American studios has become the promised land of financial investment for the blockbuster age. Disney does well in China, with films like Zootopia breaking box office records, but not everything plays well there. Disney can’t release films with ghosts, for example, due to nationwide cultural laws, and the Star Wars franchise is not the guaranteed smash hit there that it is elsewhere. What is a big deal there is Avatar; the movie made $204m in China alone, which remained an all-time box office record for years. While other North American studios struggle to crack the Chinese box office, Avatar could give Disney another firm foothold in one of the biggest film markets in the world.
We don’t really know much about the Avatar sequels yet, as Cameron likes to keep things under wraps for as long as possible. What we know so far amounts to some new cast additions – including Titanic alum Kate Winslet – that mammoth budget, and the planned release dates, with the second film set for December 2020. We know that parts two and three are being filmed back to back, and that the future for parts four and five are contingent on their success. Principal photography started last September, taking place in New Zealand and California. Story details remain sketchy but it was revealed that the first film’s villain, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), would return from the dead to be the franchise’s central nemesis once again. Cameron also revealed that the cast had undergone extensive training for underwater scenes, and that he’d even finished the scripts for all five parts.
The benefits for Disney are plentiful, but the same can’t necessarily be said for James Cameron. The Oscar-winning director is notoriously controlling of his work, and not a fan of studio meddling. Disney, meanwhile, likes to keep a tight rein on the stuff they own. Avatar sequels have not been quick in their planning because Cameron wants to take his time and wait for the technology to catch up to his vision, but whether or not Disney will be so patient remains to be seen. Increased corporate oversight will almost inevitably come into play, because there’s just too much riding on the success of these films.
It’s easy to imagine Disney de-prioritizing the Avatar franchise in favour of their safer bets, like the Star Wars movies or Marvel Cinematic Universe. When you own so many of the big names in blockbuster cinema, you control what gets seen and when. If one of your films could be too big a competition for another of your films, you can just push it back a few months. Disney currently have more cards in the deck dedicated to their own material, as well as earlier acquisitions, so there’s no guarantee Avatar would be a priority for them. Star Wars is more established, has a bigger fan-base and billions of dollars worth of profits behind it, which would make it their ultimate priority before something like Avatar.
There’s far less certainty that we’ll even get the full franchise as planned by Cameron. Putting down $1bn for a franchise is enough to scare even the most generous producer, and knowing that parts four and five are dependent on the success of their predecessors, it’s easy to imagine Disney pulling the plug if their high expectations aren’t met. Avatar has the potential to be a savvy investment, but it’s still one that demands huge financial trust with little in the way of audience guarantees. One of the reasons people flocked to the first Avatar was because of its never-before-seen effects. It was a rarity to see that kind of technological marvel on the big screen; now, it’s a regular occurrence.
Cameron has promised astounding technical achievement for the sequels, and that will guarantee at least some curious audiences, but Avatar was never very substantive in terms of plot or character (think of how many Fern Gully and Pocahontas jokes you heard when the first film came out). It didn’t need to be when it was only one movie – it just needed a decent foundation for the best CGI in the business. Audiences are more fatigued than ever, and if they don’t care about the characters and the world that’s been so intricately created, they may not return time and time again for this franchise.
Ultimately, as with all things, this comes down to money. Say what you want about James Cameron, and say what you want about Avatar as a franchise, but this is a director who knows how to make a frightening amount of money at every turn. Even when his films are the most expensive ever made, they still spin glorious profits. The potential for that now is even greater as Disney can turn this series into a bona-fide franchise with various spin-offs or side-projects like the theme park attraction. Disney knows a good investment when they see one, and Avatar could be one of the dark horses in their arsenal.
KEY RELEASE DATES
Avatar 2 release date: Dec 18, 2020
Avatar 3 release date: Dec 17, 2021
Avatar 4 release date: Dec 20, 2024
Avatar 5 release date: Dec 19, 2025